Even as a dietitian who *truly* loves grocery shopping, weeding through all the different food label marketing claims gets a bit overwhelming! From vague phrases like natural and healthy to other confusing claims like grass-fed and free-range, it can be hard to know which words to trust and which ones to think twice about. And for good reason!
After diving into the topic of health claims on egg cartons, I was inspired to investigate three other commonly used food label marketing claims: gluten-free, natural, and grass-fed.
The thing with many food label claims is they can be worded in ways that make us think we’re choosing something better than something else. Like we are getting the better choice, the healthier choice, the more nutritious choice. When in reality, phrases like gluten-free, natural, and grass-fed don’t have alot to do with a food’s nutritional value. After all, some of the most nutritious foods available (think fresh produce, leafy greens, herbs, seafood) often have no labels!
So while many gluten-free, natural, and grass-fed foods are indeed nutritious, it’s important to know what these food claims actually mean in terms of your health and your food budget. Are they worth the higher cost? And if so, why?
In today’s post, we are taking a closer look at three common food label marketing claims.
People avoid gluten for many different reasons, whether because they have celiac disease; gluten sensitivities and intolerances; or they’re following an autoimmune protocol (AIP) in hopes of easing autoimmune symptoms such as joint pain, swelling, and fatigue.
However, one super common misconception is that gluten-free foods are lower in carbohydrates, more nutritious, and better for your health than their gluten-containing counterparts. This is especially important to note because most of the gluten-containing foods we eat are processed or packaged foods like crackers, cookies, cereals, breads, and refined grains.
That’s right, most gluten-containing foods are packaged or processed foods. And when it comes to your health, whether they contain gluten isn’t nearly as important as all of the other ingredients!
Processed foods can be loaded with artificial colors and flavorings, GMOs, preservatives, and industrial oils. Healthier processed foods contain better-for-you oils, natural flavors and colors, and generally more recognizable ingredients. So it’s important to be discerning here.
Healthier processed foods that contain gluten include frozen fruits and veggies; canned tuna; BPA-free canned beans; single whole grains like brown and wild rice, pasta, quinoa and farro; cereals like oatmeal, muesli and granola; salsa; and some raw energy bars (like Lara bar and others).
Keep in mind that while there are many clean, naturally gluten-free foods to choose from, this doesn’t mean you should completely eliminate gluten from your diet (unless you have to). It’s best to listen to how your unique body responds to gluten, cutting it out or scaling back if necessary. Gluten-containing foods also carry with them important nutrients like B vitamins, fiber, and magnesium.
My Nourish 21 program is an excellent way to experiment with clean eating and uncover the foods keeping you from feeling your best!
Understanding Gluten-Free Food Labels
Now that we’ve cleared up the misconception that gluten-free always means healthy, clean or nutritious, let’s talk food labels.
The FDA regulates gluten-free claims on all foods (and dietary supplements) except for meat, poultry, and certain eggs; these are regulated by the USDA. Gluten-free alcoholic beverages are regulated by the Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau (TTB).
According to the FDA, gluten-free food label claims are permitted if:
- Foods are inherently free of gluten.
- Foods contain less than 20 parts per million of gluten (this is the lowest amount of gluten that can be reliably detected).
- Foods are free of all wheat, rye, and barley ingredients, OR they’re free of ingredients derived from these grains.
If you have celiac disease or a true gluten allergy, I encourage you to check out this food label reading guide from the Celiac Disease Foundation. And when reading a food label, remember that wheat-free and gluten-free are not the same! All wheat foods contain gluten, but not all gluten-containing foods contain wheat.
Natural food label marketing claims are some of the most confusing, as the term “natural” is not formally defined in the US. According to FDA policy, food products labeled as “natural” should have no artificial or synthetic ingredients added to them (including color additives). However, this policy does not account for food processing and pesticide usage.
As for meat and poultry products labeled as “natural” the USDA requires these foods to be minimally processed, free of added colors, and free of artificial ingredients. Natural food labels should also explain what makes the product “natural” (for example, “minimally processed,” “no added coloring,” and “no artificial ingredients” would be sufficient explanations).
3. Grass-Fed (or Forage Fed)
This commonly used food label marketing claim refers to cattle specifically: it means that instead of being fed grains or grain byproducts, cattle are fed grass and forage for the entire duration of their lives (with the exception of milk prior to weaning).
During the growing season, grass-fed cattle must have continuous access to pasture where they can forage for grass, forbs, browse plants, and cereal grain crops. Grain-fed (feedlot) cattle, on the other hand, are conventionally raised and fed diets of soy and corn.
While grass-fed beef has been found to be more nutritious and humane in comparison to grain-fed beef, grass-fed food label marketing claims refer solely to the animal’s diet and do not take into account whether the animal received antibiotics or hormones.
An exception here is the American Grassfed Approved (AGA) label: this is an independent certification that ensures all ruminant meat animals were fed 100% grass diets, pasture-raised on family farms, and received no hormones or antibiotics.
If you can’t find the AGA certification while shopping, USDA Organic meat products are a good alternative.
The USDA Organic food label means:
- Cattle are given outdoor space to forage for food in a natural way.
- Cattle are not given antibiotics or hormones.
- Cattle are fed 100% organic diets consisting of grass, forage, corn, and grain (all feed must also be free of GMOs and synthetic ingredients).
Do Organic Food Labels Mean 100% Organic?
If you try to eat as organically as possible, keep in mind that organic claims don’t necessarily mean foods are 100% organic. At least 95% of a product’s ingredients must be organic in order to qualify for a USDA Organic seal, but only products labeled as 100% Organic are completely organic.
Understanding Food Label Claims Boosts Food Confidence
While food labels can help us to make healthier choices at the grocery store, marketing claims like gluten-free, natural, and grass-fed might also mislead us into thinking a product is healthier or more nutrient-rich than it really is. This is why it’s important to know what these labels mean before purchasing a food product! Purchasing food that’s aligned with your values is how you develop true food confidence.
Are you confused about food label claims? Are you ready to become more confident in your food choices? Join the waitlist for my summer session of Nourish 21: we start July 24th!