Much of my discussion in the grocery store is about labels and how confusing they are, and this topic is no different. There are always buzzwords to make us think or feel a certain way, and those words change over time. Here are some buzzwords to look for or look out for depending on your perspective and food/grocery goals.
Natural: Now listen, I would very much love to define this as it relates to food, but technically the FDA has not clearly defined this term as it relates to labels on foods, so how could I possibly define such an ambiguous term? I mean, shouldn’t all of our food be natural? I think so, but it is not, and that is the issue. The more products that claim they are natural, the more skeptical I become. Webster defines natural as “determined by nature” as well as “not artificial” or “being simple and sincere”. Okay I am captivated by the simple and sincere definition…wouldn’t it be nice if our food labels were simple and sincere. Now that IS food for thought. Of course that might mean there would be no need for me to explain things or help you navigate to the healthiest choices out there in grocery land, and so I continue on with some assurance of job security at least for a while!
Technically the FDA has no objection to the use of the term natural, provided it is used in a manner that is truthful and not misleading and the product does not contain added color, artificial flavors, or synthetic substances.
The USDA allows the term natural in meat and poultry labeling on products that contain no artificial ingredients, or added color. The product must be minimally processed and the label must explain the use of the term natural.
The bottom line: My real cautionary advice here is for you not to be misled by the term natural. Some foods labeled natural may very well be healthful. However, because is says natural does not mean it is healthy.
Cage-free vs. Free-range: Cage-free chickens live in an open room so they can stretch their wings. Free-range means the chickens are raised with some access to the outside. In researching this it appears that more often than not the chickens are still subjected to less than ideal conditions. Cage-free and free-range are a step in the right direction but it is not the picture you may conjure up in your mind about a farm house with chickens wandering around the barnyard happily going about eating a natural diet. A new buzz-phrase to look for is pastured poultry, meaning (but not technically defined) that the chickens were raised outside and allowed to eat a natural diet. Look for eggs from pastured chickens at your local farmers market this year.
Stone ground: Stone ground flour is made by grinding flour solely in stone mills. But again there is no legal definition of how this term can be used, so it is misused and confusing. The part I want consumers to be aware of is that just because it says stone ground that does NOT mean whole grain. Stone ground sounds healthy and conjures up those wholesome thoughts we gravitate toward. Some stone ground flour/breads maybe lovely and wholesome just make sure that whole grain (wheat, oats, etc.) is the first ingredient in the ingredient list.
5 grams whole grain: This is another confusing issue with grains. Some people may think the label is indicating 5 grams of fiber (it is not). I see this type of wording on crackers, in cereal and on cookies the most. One serving of whole grain is technically 16 grams, 5g whole grains in not even half a serving. Of course it is fine to eat a product with 5g whole grain; just realize that it is not the best way to get your whole grains in. Again, look for whole grains to be first in the ingredient list.
I find that the food products that have to convince us they are healthy are the usually the least healthy. Of course that is not always true, but it does give reasonable cause to look closer at the nutrition panel and ingredient list.