Natural,” “organic,” “whole grain,” “hormone free”: the labels in grocery store aisles are endless, all designed to tell consumers more about the products available for purchase.
But the significance of the labels, their enforcement and whether they really mean that a product offers more nutrition and fewer processed ingredients varies in ways the labels don’t immediately make clear.
Certain labels carry more credibility than others, and all food labels should be taken with a grain of salt, says Barney Feinblum, co-founder and director of Alfalfa’s Market.
“I think ‘consumer beware’ really holds true here,” Feinblum says. “A lot of these labels are designed to glom on to the environmental movement or the health food movement, and some of them are not particularly helpful. Just because there is a label on the package that says it’s natural doesn’t mean it’s necessarily a great product.”
At this point, one of the more credible labels is the green “USDA Organic” label, which is certified under a federal program, Feinblum says. According to the USDA, organic foods must be produced without “synthetic fertilizers, sewage sludge, irradiation and genetic engineering.”
“I think that the pesticide and GMO issues are the most important to consumers,” Feinblum says. “If you boil it all down, people are concerned about their personal health and safety first. ‘Organic’ gives people comfort that these products were grown without the use of synthetic fertilizers, pesticides and herbicides.”
But even the USDA organic certification has different levels of compliance. Labels that say “100% organic” are completely made with organic products. Other products can still get the green USDA organic stamp if 95 percent of their ingredients are organic, and a product with at least 70 percent organic ingredients can still say “Made with organic.”
100 Percent Whole Wheat
Jennifer Fowler, associate brand manager for Rudi’s Organic Bakery, says label confusion is also a problem in the bread aisle, especially where whole grains are concerned.
“There are a lot of breads on the market with the ‘100 percent whole wheat’ label, and you look at that and go, ‘Oh great, it’s 100 percent whole wheat, this must be good for me,’” Fowler says. “But then you flip it over and look at the ingredients list, and see that there are also all these other ingredients you can’t even pronounce.”
Though the term “100 percent whole wheat” is a regulated label, it only ensures that the first ingredient in the bread is whole-wheat flour rather than just wheat flour. After that, the bread can contain a multitude of artificial chemicals and preservatives, Fowler says.
“What people really need to do is take that next step and look past the labels,” Fowler says. “If it looks like something that you need a Ph.D. to read, then it probably isn’t very good for you. Consumers think they’re getting these really great products when they see all of these labels, but that’s not always true. You can’t put that much faith in a company, that they are always looking out for your well-being.”
The “natural” label has seen its significance diluted in recent years by over use and misuse.
“When this industry started, when people really started looking at what was in their food, you were able to differentiate a product by calling it all natural if it had no artificial colorings, flavorings or preservatives,” Feinblum, of Alfalfa’s, says. “But unfortunately, natural doesn’t really mean anything anymore. It’s not regulated at all.”
Both Feinblum and Fowler agree that the term has become almost worthless because of its lack of regulation. A recent study by the Organic Center, a Boulder-based nonprofit organization that conducts research on organic food and farming, found that breads labeled “natural” actually had more ingredients in common with conventional, unlabeled products than with organic products.
“What one company defines as all natural is very different than what another company might define as all natural,” says Erin Smith, a senior science consultant at the Organic Center. “But there are a lot of people out there that don’t know that, and they’ll buy a product labeled ‘natural’ and think they’re making a better choice.”
Another label that is quickly growing more important is “local.” In Boulder, many of the hippest restaurants are “farm to table,” meaning that many of their products are sourced from area farms. The popularity of the Boulder Farmers’ Market is also a testament to Boulder’s love of local. But the term “local” on grocery store products is as yet unregulated, and, as such, its boundaries remain vague and undefined.
“Everyone kind of defines local differently,”
Feinblum says. “At Alfalfa’s, we define local as Boulder County, and then the state of Colorado, but we’re fortunate that we live in the state of Colorado so we can get a lot of good food. Other people have tried to define it in so many miles, or a day’s travel. So it’s all relative and undefined, but it’s also a really important thing for people.”
Until federal regulations step in to add clearer definitions to some of these labels, the best advice for consumers is to stay informed and keep reading labels from start to finish, use outside information sources, shop where someone is available to ask questions, and exercise purchasing power to shape the market while waiting for regulations to catch up.