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The real meaning behind food labels


Staff Writer

Deciphering food labels can seem like an overwhelming task. What do free range, organic and gluten free actually mean and how do they contribute to a decision to eat healthily? You’re about to find out how to read them in order to make smarter choices the next time you’re at the grocery store.

Gluten Free: Gluten is a protein found in wheat, barley and rye that adds texture to foods and elasticity to dough. Despite the fact that 40 percent of people think gluten-free foods are healthier for everyone, they probably contain more sugar and fat; as manufacturers are trying to compensate for the missing texture of gluten, according to Consumer Reports. Further, gluten-free foods probably contain rice flour, which contains arsenic.

Organic: Make sure that the produce label reads USDA Organic, which is the label that holds the most weight. For animal products, the USDA Organic label also indicates that the animal did not receive any antibiotics. The only exception is poultry, as birds may be given injections on their first day alive and still be claimed organic. To avoid this, look for no antibiotic as well as organic labels. Other variations are antibiotic free, no antibiotic residues and natural, but these are unverified and unregulated claims.

No high fructose corn syrup: While some might choose to avoid high fructose corn syrup to lessen their intake of processed foods, the term does not necessarily mean healthy.

Consumer Reports writes, “Tossing high fructose corn syrup off an ingredients list has more to do with marketing than science.”

And, just like with gluten free claims, removing high fructose corn syrup does not necessarily remove any sugar from the food.

Cage Free: As the name implies, the Humane Society’s “cage-free” label refers to a bird kept uncaged in a barn. However, these birds typically do not have access to the outdoors and are still subjected to painful treatment, such as beak cutting and forced molting. Farmers are also not audited by any third party to verify these claims, unless they choose to get certified by the Certified Humane, Animal Welfare Approved, American Humane Certified, or Food Alliance Certified certifications.

Free Range: The United States Department of Agriculture has defined free range for certain poultry products, but not for egg production. A bird is considered free range if she is uncaged inside of a barn and, as some access to the outdoors, but no requirement exists for the duration or quality of outdoor access. Other variations of this claim are free-roaming and pasture raised.  While pasture raised usually refers to hens that are kept outside for most of the year, there is no government regulation of the term so the label may be unsubstantiated. Once again, there is no third party auditing for these farmer’s claims.

Certified Humane: Certified Humane is a third party certifier with three levels of certification: cage free, free range, and pasture-raised. In this certification, beak cutting is allowed and forced molting is prohibited. Cage-free birds must be uncaged, but may remain indoors at all times. Free range birds must have at least two square feet of outdoor space and six hours of outdoor access a day. Finally, pasture-raised birds must each have 108-square-feet of outdoor space and six hours of access for the entire year. This certification requires third party auditing.

Here’s the bottom line: remain skeptical of any buzzwords like “natural” and “free range” as it does not necessarily speak to the health or integrity of a food. Instead, check for certifications and read product labels to see exactly what is inside. After all, you are what you eat.

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