Going to the grocery store these days can be daunting. It seems like every item has tons of labels slapped on it boasting reasons why that particular brand is better. But despite what the labels suggest, not all of them actually provide meaningful information, even if they are technically accurate. Nor does the designation mean the product has more nutritional value.
So, how do we tell the differences? Here is a helpful guide to some of the more common labels.
Organic. Ironically, the organic label is one of the most confusing labels, even if it’s also one of the most regulated labels. Boiled down to its most basic premise, the label indicates the production methods used to grow the food preferred “natural” over “synthetic” methods. Regardless of what clever marketing gurus would have consumers believe, the label does not mean that products are any more nutritious, healthier, or even better for the environment. To learn more factual information about the label, visit the USDA’s organic page.
Gluten-free. Gluten is a protein found in some grains, including wheat, rye, and barley. For people with Celiac’s disease, a condition where the body cannot process these proteins, a gluten-free diet is essential. But adopting a gluten-free lifestyle has become a trendy dieting plan, even for those without the disorder. Research has shown that such a diet could do more harm than good. While there is nothing wrong with purchasing a product that has a gluten-free label, be sure to check with your doctor before adopting it as a diet.
Natural. This one is a doozy. What does natural actually mean? If you asked 100 different people, it’s likely they would give 100 different answers. Even the Food and Drug Administration doesn’t have a definition for “natural,” though it does have parameters. Nonetheless, having the word “natural” on a food product doesn’t really give it much meaning. Luckily, the label doesn’t usually command a price premium.
Non-GMO. The Non-GMO label is on all sorts of products these days, even when that product is not one that has a genetically engineered equivalent. GMO generally stands for genetically modified organism, which indicates that the genetic structure of the product has been modified in some way. For example, Arctic Apples have been designed so they don’t brown when cut. As to safety, the scientific consensus is that those GMOs currently available commercially have no significant difference with their non-GMO counterparts. There are also environmental and economic benefits for farmers that grow them. Aside from that, there really is no difference in a product with the non-GMO label and the one without, except perhaps for the price.
Hormone-free. Let’s first establish a basic fact: every living thing has hormones. From the eggs you purchase to the cabbage you eat, hormones are present. However, using hormones in the production of poultry and pigs is prohibited. In fact, if you look closely, packages of those products that claim to be hormone-free also bear a disclaimer that such use is prohibited by the UDSA. So, if you are purchasing poultry or pork, the label is redundant. Hormones are sometimes used in the production of beef. To understand the why, the how, and whether it matters, I suggest checking out this excellent document by the Iowa Beef Center.
As consumers, we are beyond blessed with boundless choices. But if we don’t actually understand what those choices are, they are meaningless. By arming ourselves with knowledge, we can make informed decisions and recognize when when labels are important and when they are just frivolous.