Our food is emblazoned with catchphrases designed to convince us that whatever were eating will enrich our health. Lucky Charms, the epitome of a kids sugary cereal, sports the whole grain claim. The word natural has never sprung to mind when Ive picked up a bag of bright orange colored Cheetos, yet thats what the wrapper promises. While its easy to discount the health lingo on junk food, it can get as confusing as trying to understand a politician when youre trying to determine which loaf of bread or brand of chicken is a healthy choice for your family.
Health claims on packaged foods have become so common that it can be quite a challenge to ferret out the feel-good jargon from the terminology that actually carries some weight. While many of the claims are just misleading marketing buzzwords, others are USDA regulated terms that provide quality assurance.
Heres a handy cheat sheet to help you separate the bogus from the legit terms:
Natural and Organic Produce
The word natural conveys a comforting reassurance. Unfortunately, it means very little on packaged products because the FDA has failed to define the term and has only suggested that its not an appropriate claim on foods that contain artificial or synthetic ingredients. This wiggle room has spawned more than 50 lawsuits with no consistent guidelines. Your best bet is to assume its only a sales term. Organic, on the other hand, is a USDA regulated term that means that the food was produced without the use of hormones, pesticides, or synthetic fertilizers, and doesnt contain genetically modified ingredients.
Grass-Fed and Naturally Raised Red Meat
Grass-fed is another throwaway term. Only 100% grass fed carries a USDA meaning. According to the regulations, the animals must have been raised on a diet of fresh grass or other non-grain crops and have had access to a pasture. If the cattle were raised without growth stimulants, hormones, and not fed animal by-products, then a label of naturally raised is appropriate.
Free-Range and Hormone Free Chicken
Free-range carries the vague promise that the poultry that was not raised in a small cage, but was allowed access to the outside to flap, scuttle, and forage as they would in the wild. Despite this nebulous description, Id assume a bird that was allowed to walk around and flap its wings would be a happier, fitter chicken and a better one to eat. Beware of the oft-stated claim that the chicken breast is hormone-free. What most people dont realize is that its illegal to inject livestock with hormones, so that label only means that the farmer didnt violate the law.
Multigrain, Whole Wheat, and 100% Whole Grain Bread
Which bread is healthier? Almost all bread packages are adorned with multiple feel-good wholesome terms. Heres the lowdown. Multigrain means only what is saysthe bread contains more than one type of grain, far from a guarantee of healthfulness. Be aware that whole wheat is not the same as whole grain. If youre looking for the most nutritious bread, keep your eyes peeled for 100% whole grain. Otherwise, you may get stuck with something that is brown colored, but not much better than white air bread. Speaking of Wonder Bread, its polka dot wrapper lists wheat flour as the first ingredient, but if you keep reading youll see high fructose corn syrup and a litany of other unsavory ingredients. Thats because a bread qualifies as whole wheat so long as it has any amount of wheat flour in it. Dont put it past a manufacturer to add just a smidgen of whole wheat flour in a product to tap into the health conscious market. Only the description 100% whole grain provides assurance that the entire grain was used in the product, thus making the bread worth eating.
- Shop organic.
- Look for 100% grass fed or naturally raised.
- Free-range chicken might be worth selecting.
- Buy 100% whole wheat or 100% whole grain bread.