The truth behind labels

We all want to eat food that is healthy and nutritious. An important reason why more of us are starting to read the labels of the products that we buy; trying to ensure that what we buy is free of artificial ingredients as far as possible while it provides the nutrients that the body needs.

But how do you know that the label of the product that you have just examined is not lying to you? How can you be sure that food manufacturers and marketers are hiding the certain important facts about the product behind a catchy phrase or deceptive label names?

Here’s how you know the difference. Ten lies that you need to beware of when you buy canned or packed food.

  1. Pesticide-free: Organic food has grown in popularity in recent years for many reasons. Most importantly because of the emerging evidence of the presence of traces of pesticides in certain packed and processed food products. These pesticides even in small traces can cause some serious damage to your body, lead to diseases like Parkinson’s or cancer. This has led to many food marketers to include statements like ‘Pesticide-free’ or ‘Free of pesticide residues’ on the labels, and may also include certifications for the same. However, many of the pesticide-free rating programs use the same limits ads the Environment Protection Agency, which means that some of these food products may contain the same level of pesticide residues as the other non-organic produce in the market.
    What you can do: Prefer organic food-produce as far as possible and support companies that support organic produce. The best way to protect yourself and your family is to buy organic products where pesticides are not used.

  1. BPA-free: A concern related to the packaging is used than the food product itself. ‘BPA-free’ a claim you will find on a growing number of plastic containers or plastic food packaging material. Almost all food containers have plastic lining made of BPA (Bisphenol A), a toxic chemical linked to reproductive problems, cardiac problems and some cancers. Certain studies suggest that all types of plastic packaging material leach certain harmful chemicals into food products, some may even be worse than BPA.
    What you can do: Opt for food packaged in glass or aseptic cartons. When you eat out, try to carry your own glass or stainless steel to-go containers.

  1. Front-of-package labels: A convenient way for consumers to identify what to buy? Or a convenient way for marketers to sell their products? This system of labelling, where the front of the package has the so-called ‘all you need to know’information while they hide what the marketers don’t want you to see, i.e. they may highlight the nutrients the body needs, while hiding the harmful constituents present in the food in an attempt to sell their product.
    What you can do: Look out for four elements when you buy packed food. The content of calories, fats (both saturated and trans-fats), added sugars and sodium.
  1. Multi-grain: Somehow, we have all come to believe that multi-grain bread is a part of a healthy diet. True, except when the multi-grains are just multiple versions of unhealthy refined grains. There is no specific claim that states that multi-grain must contain whole versions of the grains and marketers can use this claim to sell their products, by making it seem healthier than it actually is.
    What you can do: Not all companies use versions of refined grains and claim to have a multi-grain product. There are in fact many companies who use whole grains while preparing multi-grain breads. As a healthy consumer, you should ensure that you read the list of ingredients on the package and that the word ‘whole’ prefixes every grain listed.

  1. Gluten-free: A category of food that is rapidly increasing in popularity, Gluten-free food. But despite this, you can find a host of individuals suffering from celiac disease and gluten sensitivity, which hints at the fact that not all food products that claim to be gluten free are actually free of gluten. This can partly be because of cross-contamination in food processing facilities that make both wheat –based food and gluten-free products. Or it can be carefully hidden by marketers under the labels like ‘artificial flavours’.
    What you can do: Identify organizations that certify food products to be free of rye, wheat or barley gluten and check your ‘gluten-free’ food product to be certified by these organizations.
  1. Nutrition facts: Food manufacturing companies are allowed to incorporated averages of for the calorie counts, salt and fat content and other information on the list of nutrients. Manufacturers are also allowed to be off the printed number by as much as 20% which can be a big difference.
    What you can do: Avoid packaged food products as much as you can. The best food products you can have come without labels (fruits and vegetables). In case you do buy packed products, read the ingredients label in addition to the nutrients label to avoid trans-fats and avoid any product that has partially hydrogenated oils listed in it.

  1. Antibiotic-free: Illegal to use on packages, manufacturers skirt the issue by using terms or phrases like ‘grown without antibiotics’ or ‘no antibiotics administered’, while others use antimicrobials that work similar to antibiotics but is defined differently. This process is followed by manufacturers of packed meat to fatten chickens and other meat faster.
    What you can do: Purchasing organic meat is the only way to avoid this kind of meat. Purchase your meat from a local farmer who uses antibiotics on animals, only when they get sick, when they should be used.
  1. Grass-fed: A term that probably reminds you of a picture of cows in vast, grassy fields. The term grass-fed is defined to mean that an animal eats 100% grass and no corn or soy and has continuous access to pasture throughout its life. However, no farm inspections are conducted to validate the manufacturers who use this label, and manufacturers are allowed to use the term ‘grass-fed’ on their labels after they submit documents stating that their animals are 100% grass-fed.
    What you can do: Look for a verification or certification label by the concerned authorities in your location to ensure that the meat you buy is indeed grass-fed. Or you can buy your meat directly from a farmer’s market and get first-hand information on what his animals have been eating.
  1. Natural: A term which you see on the label of a product you want to buy and immediately feel good about the health benefits that it provides. There is unfortunately no official definition for the term ‘natural’, except for meat. It is defined as a product containing no artificial ingredient or artificial colour and is only minimally processed. There is however, no mention in this definition about how animals are raised or whether they are fed hormones or antibiotics. So even a product manufactured using Genetically Modified Organisms (GMOs) can be marketed and sold under the label of ‘natural’ products.
    What you can do: Once again, buying organic food products is your best bet to avoid misleading labels.

  1. No added growth hormones: You’ll see this claim in ads and labels for meat like chicken or turkey and milk labels as well. When a label says ‘No added growth hormones’, it does not mean that the manufacturer has not used antibiotics instead, which speed the growth of animals in the same way as growth hormones.
    What you can do: Go for certified organic meat and dairy which are free of hormones and antibiotics. Or buy from small local farmers from whom you can get details of how they have raised and fed their animals.

Now that you know what to look out for on the labels of packaged food products, ensure that you buy the right stuff…irrespective of what the label of the product says.

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