Like Wrapped Packages … Food Label Terms Can Be a Guessing Game

by | Dec 22, 2023 | Blog

Wrapped gifts under a Christmas treeI learned a basic rule while growing up: Don’t get excited about the contents of a package until you opened it! In other words, what was in the box didn’t always match the outside label. My mother was resourceful, so using a box for the second or third time seemed quite appropriate!

While the contents of our food packages match the label, we may be surprised that some of those alluring “glitz” labels don’t always match our expectations. Like trying to solve what’s really inside our holiday packages, food label terminology can be a guessing game.

Perception Versus Reality

Over the years, the International Food Information Annual Food & Health Surveys have evaluated how consumers evaluate the healthfulness of a product when looking at identical Nutrition Fact Panels with different additional labels or characteristics. In one annual survey, over 40% of consumers identified products bearing the labels of “fresh,” “natural,” or “non-GMO” or those with shorter ingredient lists as healthier. Even though the nutrition profile was the same, some of those “bright light” labels changed the consumer perceptions. When buying food, like presents, our criteria may be more of a value choice than really what’s in the product. But it’s important to make those choices based on reality.

Beneath the “Glitz” Labels

Whether it’s clothes, gifts or food, labels do influence our purchasing decisions. But we need to make sure the value we seek equals the price. Here’s the scoop on my top three “glitz” labels:

1. Non-GMO — This is a term that is practically on everything … and it is true! Most of our food supply is non-GMO as there are no genetically engineered “sister” products! Despite the fear that creeps into the headlines from time to time, there are only 10 commercially available GMO crops that exist today in our U.S. food supply: corn, soy, papaya, squash, canola, sugar beets, cotton, alfalfa, potato and apples. The frequently seen “butterfly” is not government regulated, but rather a symbol of a nonprofit organization “committed to preserving and building sources of non-GMO products, educating consumers and providing verified non-GMO choices.”

Food companies must meet strict guidelines established by the organization to display the symbol, so if you see the butterfly, you can be assured the product contains no genetically modified ingredients, but that does not mean it is not a “health halo” or better for you.

2. Natural — According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), meat, poultry or eggs labeled “natural” must be minimally processed and contain no artificial ingredients. However, there are no farm practice standards identified, and the term applies only to the processing. There is no formal definition or labeling of the term “natural” by USDA if the product does not contain meat or eggs. Despite the multitude of public comments over the past several years, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) still has not issued a standard definition for all other food products.

There is a longstanding FDA policy that identifies the term “natural” as nothing artificial or synthetic (including all color additives regardless of source) has been included in, or has been added to, a food that would not normally be expected to be in that food. However, “natural” does not define the nutritional benefits, health claims or the production or processing of a food product.

3. Fresh — The definition of “fresh” may be more individual perception than regulation, which creates more questions than answers. Does “fresh orange juice” mean fresh-squeezed prior to serving or from a purchased source? Are fresh fruits and vegetables only those bought in whole form? The FDA only defines the term “fresh-cut produce” as being physically altered from its whole state after being harvested from the field.

From a nutritional standpoint, canned tomatoes or frozen blueberries will be more nutritious this time of the year for many of us. Canned and frozen foods are packed at their peak during harvest to preserve freshness and nutritional quality. With the demand of fresh produce year-round regardless of our location, the nutritional value of fresh produce can diminish during transportation across the U.S. or globally.

Stick with the Basics

Food labels like beautifully wrapped packages may not always reveal what we expect if we only see the glitz! When it comes to making the best food choices for our health, stick with the “socks and underwear” mentality! Use the Nutrition Fact Panel! This is one label that eliminates the package “guessing” game. There are no surprises beneath this label!

New nutrition panel label explained