Eating healthy can do amazing things ... give you energy, fuel a sport, prevent disease and maintain optimum weight. Unfortunately, sensationalized nutrition headlines and food product labels touting super health benefits are everywhere. So how does the average consumer decide if a food is truly “good for you” or if it just “sounds good for you?”
The answer lies in nutrition, the science of food and how our body uses it. Registered dietitian nutritionists help consumers make healthy choices by relaying information from scientific research. But the landscape of how we shop on a daily basis is changing.
The latest research from the Food Marketing Institute (FMI) reports that people today are more focused on healthy eating than ever before. Meanwhile, the number of food choices in the marketplace has exploded. According to the FMI, the number of products stocked at the supermarket grew from 8,948 to 47,000 between 1978 and 2008.
When you understand the science, it’s easier to make the right choices for a healthy lifestyle. To quote one of today’s most influential scientists, Dr. Neil de Grasse Tyson: “The good thing about science is that it’s true, whether or not you believe in it.”
As you’re loading up your cart at your next trip to the grocery store or farmer’s market, try to avoid falling prey to the “health halo,” overestimating just how healthy or low-calorie your do-good choice may be and follow these tips.
Shop Front and Back of Labels
Food packaging is an area for possible deception. Symbols and specialty labels used to supposedly clear up confusion can many times do the opposite. Using popular words such as “all-natural,” “organic,” “grass-fed,” and “free-range” can be confusing and misleading. The market research firm Innova reports that many of the claims have been so overused that they are losing their meaning. Transparency in labeling is one of the top trends to look for in 2015.
Front-of-pack symbols are not a reliable indicator of healthier nutrient profiles. For example, the packaging on tri-colored pastas often infer that the contents are higher in vitamin content because of the addition of garden vegetables. In reality, the Nutrition Fact panel reveals the vitamin A content of a serving of the pasta is only equivalent to one-sixth of a carrot. It makes more sense to eat actual whole fruits and vegetables, not foods with vegetable powder claiming to add the garden goodies.
Beware of Fear Factor
Many groups promote good and bad eating lists. Their goal is to help the consumer select healthier products, but many times their recommendations are not reflective of consensus science, because of flawed data scoring.
Such is the case with the Environmental Working Group’s Food Scores: Rate Your Plate database, which rates 80,000 whole and packaged foods on a scale of 1-10, with 1 being the healthiest. The Grocery Manufacturers Association (GMA) fears such rating systems provide misleading information and may falsely alarm and confuse consumers about product choices. For example, foods that are not certified organic are penalized in the rating system. The result of this penalty is that foods that are labeled organic top almost all categories in the system “despite significant evidence that nutrition value of organic and conventional products are comparable,” according to the GMA.
Whole – Foods as we get them from nature. Examples are eggs, fresh fruits and vegetables, beans and peas, grains and fish. Some whole foods are not processed or refined and do not have added ingredients. Some are minimally processed, such as milk, to make it safe to drink.
Processed – Foods prepared using certain procedures, such as culturing with bacteria to make yogurt. In some cases, processing removes nutrients, such as when whole wheat is milled to make white flour. In other cases, processing helps retain nutrients, such as when freshly picked vegetables are frozen.
Organic – Foods produced without antibiotic or growth hormones, conventional pesticides, fertilizers made with synthetic ingredients or sewage sludge, bioengineering or ionizing radiation. Before a product can be labeled organic, a government-approved certifier inspects the farm where the food is grown to verify that they meet the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) organic standards.
Organic eggs means hens fed 100 percent organic feed, no growth hormones, antibiotics and other drugs, not necessarily cage-free or free-range.
Organic fruits, nuts, vegetables and grains means no synthetic pesticides, not irradiated, no synthetic fertilizers, not genetically engineered and no sewage sludge.
Organic meat and poultry means access to outdoors, not irradiated, no growth hormones, antibiotics, and other drugs, raised on 100 percent organic feed and not fed animal byproducts.
Organic milk means cows have access to outdoors, and receive no growth hormones, anitibiotics or other drugs. Cows were fed for past 12 months on 100 percent organic, and at least 30 percent of cows’ diet is from pasture during primary growing season.
Organic packaged foods can be “100 percent organic,” when all ingredients are organic; “organic,” when at least 95 percent of ingredients are organic; and “made with organic ingredients,” when at least 70 percent of ingredients are organic.
Seafood – There are no current official U.S. standards for “organic” seafood. The USDA is working on a standard for farm-raised seafood.
Hormone-Free – Incorrect claim. All animals produce hormones.
Natural – Food contains no artificial ingredients or added colors, and is no more than “minimally processed.” Natural does not mean organic or raised in any particular way. Official definition applies only to meat, chicken and eggs, not other fresh or packaged foods.
No Antibiotics Added – Documentation is required for beef, pork, lamb or poultry. There is currently no procedure for verifying claim on eggs, milk or fish.
No Hormones Administered – If on beef, documentation required. Label is meaningless on pork and chicken, since hormone use is never permitted. There is no procedure for verifying claim on milk, fish or eggs.
Cage-Free – Poultry is not confined to cages. May or may not have access to outdoors.
Certified Humane Raised and Handled – Animals have ample space and shelter and are able to perform natural behaviors. No cages or crates are used. Feed contains no added antibiotics or hormones. Humanely slaughtered.
Free-Range and Free-Roaming – Poultry has access to the outdoors, but for no minimum time. No official definition for beef.
Grass-Fed – Animals get most of their nutrients from grass throughout their lives. Unless also labeled organic, they may be given antibiotics, hormones and insecticides.
Pasture-Raised – No official meaning.
Look Beyond Marketing
Research suggests there is a greater need to educate consumers about health benefits of food and product labeling, but also to understand how food is marketed. This will better arm consumers when they go into supermarkets.
Purchasing local produce, eating through the seasons and planning meals often outweighs the benefits of organic from the standpoint of taste, price and sustainable agriculture. Visit the Historic McKinney Farmer’s Market, which sells locally grown produce each season. Join a community-supported vegetable co-op to sample seasonal produce, and look for Texas-grown produce at local supermarkets, such as Market Street. Shop Munzee Marketplace, Patina Green Home and Market and Local Yocal Farm to Market, which all specialize in locally grown and produced foods.
Make use of reliable resources, such as Produce for Better Health Fruits and Veggies More Matters, a health initiative that provides a great deal of practical information on seasonality, purchasing, storing and preparing a variety of produce.
Tone Down Nutrition “Elitism”
What consumers buy is a personal decision. You shouldn’t have to choose sides. Many people cannot grow their own garden, shop at specialty food markets or purchase certified organic. Helping people achieve nutritional balance is about meeting people where they are. At the end of the day, we need to consider healthy and affordable food locally produced in a sustainable, humane way – and let the facts from science help guide our choices.
About the author: Cindy Kleckner, RDN, LD, FAND, is a registered dietitian nutritionist at Cooper Fitness Center at Craig Ranch, a fellow of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics and co-author of the DASH Diet For Dummies. Contact her at Clkleck@aol.com.