What do all of the claims on our food packages really mean? Are they regulated, or can anyone just slap “All-Natural” on the front of a package and put it on the shelf? It turns out this issue can be a little ambiguous. Today, we want to outline the food marketing phrases that can be useful in making healthier choices and the terms that really don’t mean anything at all.
“Natural” claims are very common on food packages. It’s important to keep in mind, though, that the FDA and USDA have no formal definitions for the use of this term. The only real rule is that the claim can’t be misleading (i.e. the product can’t contain artificial flavors/colors or synthetic substances). And labels for meat and poultry must actually explain their use of the word “natural” (for example, by adding that there is no added coloring). Because the standards for this label claim are not clearly defined, don’t take this claim at face value.
You may have heard that the USDA’s Agricultural Marketing Service revoked its approval process for the “grass-fed” label claim for beef. But what does this mean? In practice, not much. These claims (when legitimate) will still be approved, but by the USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Service and by third-party inspectors. Each beef producer is free to use the term grass-fed as long as the reasoning for doing so aligns with the paperwork they turn into the USDA. Because there is so much ambiguity about this term, it may not be one to base your purchase off of. To be sure you’re truly getting grass-fed beef, try your local farmer’s market or butcher.
Of all the terms we’re discussing, the "organic" claim carries the most specific, legal criteria. The USDA requires that organic meat, poultry, eggs, and dairy products come from animals that have been given NO antibiotics or growth hormones. Organic plant-based products must be produced without using most conventional pesticides, fertilizers that contain synthetic ingredients or sewage sludge, bioengineering, or ionizing radiation. Government-approved certifiers inspect organic farms to make sure these standards are met.
There are three levels of organic claims for food:
- “100% Organic”: products that are made of only organic ingredients.
- “Organic”: at least 95% of the product’s ingredients are organic.
- “Made with Organic Ingredients”: at least 70% of the product’s ingredients are certified organic. The USDA organic seal can’t be used on these products, but their packaging can say, “made with organic ingredients.”
Manufacturers use the term “whole foods” to describe foods that are not processed and contain no added ingredients. This would generally refer to fresh produce, whole grains, meat, and fish, but remember: this is another completely unregulated term. The best way to tell if this claim really means whole ingredients are used is to read the label. If it contains whole food ingredients that you recognize, like ones you could buy in the produce section of the grocery store, it is made of whole foods.
- “Low calorie”: foods that contain 40 calories or less per serving
- “Low cholesterol”: foods that contain 20mg or less of cholesterol and 2g or less of saturated fat per serving
- “Reduced”: foods that contain at least 25% less of a particular nutrient or calories than the “normal” product
- “Good source of”: foods that provide at least 10-19% of the Daily Value of a specific vitamin or nutrient per serving
- “Calorie free”: foods that contain fewer than five calories per serving
- “Fat free”/”sugar free”: foods that contain less than 0.5g of fat/sugar per serving
- “Low sodium”: foods that contain 140mg or less of sodium per serving
- “High in”: foods that offer 20% or more of the Daily Value of a particular nutrient per serving
These are seen all over processed foods. Occasionally they can be useful when comparing two items. For example, if you are looking to use canned beans in a recipe, having the low sodium label on one item assures you that one serving contains 140mg of sodium or less. These claims can be helpful when trying to make healthful substitutions, but remember, whole foods like fresh fruits and vegetables, whole grains, and lean protein choices will always be a safe and healthy option with high nutrient density and quality.
Your weekly trip to the grocery store can be stressful enough without trying to decode the food industry’s favorite labels and claims. Be sure to take the time to understand what a label really means in terms of a food’s nutrient content before relying on promotional buzzwords.
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Tuesday, April 12th
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Stop by the Total Wellness booth!
"Calorie In, Calorie Out"
Notice that we use the phrase "fat loss" instead of "weight loss". That's because you can lose weight in a number of forms, including muscle, fat, and fluids. But generally, when we talk about losing "weight", what we are REALLY aiming to do reduce body fat. Now there's good news and there's bad news. Let's start with the bad...
The bad news is that if you pick up pop magazines, products brochures, or worse, succumb to the urge to google "how to lose weight" (YIKES!) you'll find a plethora of methods, strategies, and plans based on all sorts of pseudo-science and junk theories. Many of these methods are diet-based, some involving extreme eliminations, others touting "superfoods" (see our nutrition post on those), and many debating the efficacy of "calorie in, calorie out". Others are more obvious, claiming readers/buyers can achieve their weight loss goals without making any lifestyle changes at all, just by taking this supplement, applying this cream, wearing this device, and so forth. The latter may back their claims with testimonials about pounds lost, but again, there is more than one way to lose weight. Methods that do not involve lifestyle change may occasionally lead to minimal weight loss (body wraps, diuretics, etc) but not FAT loss. And we're hear to talk about fat loss.
Now the good news: all debate and controversy aside, the science is quite clear, and it comes down to one thing. Thanks to the laws of thermodynamics, we know that energy in will equal energy out, and vice versa. But what does that MEAN? It means that the "calorie in, calorie out" camp has it right. When the calories you consume exceed the calories that you burn, your body fat will increase. When your calories burned are equal to your calories consumed, your body fat will be maintained. And finally, when the calories you burn exceed the calories you consume, you will lose body fat. This is called creating caloric deficit. It's generally accepted that a *weekly* deficit of 3500 calories results in one pound of fat loss.
So there it is: calories in versus calories out. But do the type of calories matter? And what about exercise?
Hmmm, good question! Are all calories equal? In terms of thermodynamics alone, no significant difference has been demonstrated. In fact, this Kansas State University nutrition professor demonstrated how it works, losing 27 pounds by creating a caloric deficit on a "junk food" diet (which he does NOT recommend, and neither do we!) But when it comes to long-term health, fueling our bodies for better performance, and feeling fab while we slim down, eating well certainly matters. A balanced diet consisting of a variety of lower-calorie, nutrient-dense of foods is the best way to begin creating the deficit needed to reduce body fat without sacrificing your wellness and vitality.
Exercise and physical activity correspond to your "calories out". The above deficit can also be achieved by increasing the calories you expend when you increase you activity levels. The more you move, the more you burn. Are some forms of exercise more efficient than others? Perhaps. We'll talk more about that in next week's blog. Stay tuned!