Wednesday, February 10, 2016

Confusing food terms (part 1)

Low calorie=Healthy?
Whole foods=Organic?
GMO=Going Mad Over unclear food terms?

There are so many terms used by food companies, and marketers when they want to send a message "YOU SHOULD EAT (insert food name) TO BE HEALTHY!" What does it really all mean though?

So, let's start with the term healthy.  Go ahead, what does it mean to you?  The Food and Drug Administration actually has a definition of the word healthy, but it can be misleading.  For example, choose the option below the FDA defines as healthy:
  1. Salmon and avocados
  2. Raisin Bran and Campbell's soup
If you choose number 1 you're wrong.  The FDA says these items have too much fat (even if it's good fat) and cannot labeled as healthy.  However, Raisin Bran loaded with sugar does meet the requirement. 

Just remember the healthy label can be a good food decision, but it may not be completely black and white.  I would prefer to include salmon, avocado, and almonds in my family's diet over sugary cereals, and sodium-laden soup with unclear ingredients. 

The definition of organic is actually very clear.  The short answer is food grown without use of pesticides, fertilizers, genetically modified organisms, antibiotics, and growth hormones. 

The definition of organic may be clear, but when it comes to labeling it can get a little murky.  The USDA allows foods to be labeled organic if they are made with 95% of organic ingredients. Also, a food can be labeled "made with organic ingredients" if 70% of the ingredients are organic. So if my math is correct that leaves 30% of the ingredients that can be non-organic, almost 1/3!

The one issue I regularly have with the use of the term "organic" is the idea that organic is always good for you, and it's not necessarily.  Organic can be a great choice, but a food being organic does not automatically make it a good decision.  Let's have an example.  If I'm faced with the choice of giving my children organic gummy bears, or a non-organic orange, I'm going to pick the orange.  The organic label does not automatically deem a food nutritious. 

In general, organic foods do contain more whole foods, and easy to recognize ingredients, but don't think it automatically means you should eat it.

My personal choice for my family is to eat mostly organic, but it's not 100%.  If you are interested in buying organic items, here's the 2015 Dirty Dozen list (aka the foods with the most pesticides found in them). On the flip side, here's the 2015 Clean Fifteen, the foods I worry less about buying organic.

Fun tip:  When buying produce, you can tell if it's organic by the PLU.  Organic produce PLU codes have five digits (instead of the usual four), and always start with the number 9.  

Natural or All Natural 
Every time I see a food labeled "natural," in my head I hear Mandy Patinkin in The Princess Bride. 

The word "natural" on a food label has very little meaning, and is not defined by the FDA. There are guidelines that the food can't contain anything artificial or synthetic, but that's it.  Companies play fast and loose with this term.  For example, you can purchase "Natural Cheetos" but there's really no nutritional value, and seriously what in the world would be natural about Cheetos?  I have yet to see a Cheetos farm where the Cheetos grow into a healthy snack.  (I'd like to see one though...just sayin'.)  

Really, you don't know exactly what you're getting when you buy a food labeled as natural.  There's just no standard right now.  It's a way for brands and marketers to imply a health benefit, and potentially mark up the price. Be skeptical and investigate what's really in the product.

If you were around in the 80s and 90s you may recall the very unfortunate trend of fat free foods, and still have some of those foods burned into your taste bud memory.

Not all fats are created equal. There are good fats--the unsaturated fats--as part of a healthy well-balanced diet, versus saturated fats which are the "bad fats".  They're not the same, but can get lumped together.

Here's an example to explain why fat-free is so misleading as a health claim.  Salmon is considered high in fat, but it is mostly good fats.  Yet, marshmallows are fat free.  Which one do you think should be part of your balanced diet?  This does not mean ignore fat content! Just be sure you are consuming the right type of fat in the right amounts.  

That's all for today!  Tomorrow, I'm going to continue with three more terms:  calories, whole foods, and GMO.  Plus, I'll tell you what you should be looking for on your food labels.

To be continued... (click here to read part 2)


  1. This is such a great break dowm of all the terms. I am going to share this on my Facebook page!

  2. Love this break down! As someone who is working hard on losing weight, but doing it by working out and eating correctly, this is helpful.

  3. Yes yes yes! Thank you for pointing out that 'natural' means nothing! I remember a day when I sought out a fat-free diet. Now, I get all the healthy fat I can!

    1. I think the taste of fat free cheese from the early 90s will never leave my taste buds.

  4. This is an awesome breakdown. I often get so confused by all the labels that I just stop reading them and take my chances. I know it's not the best option but I feel like I'll spend hours and hours in the grocery store googling otherwise. This is so super helpful!

    1. I'm so glad this is helpful! I have also had to stop myself from googling a crazy amount and just keep grocery shopping.

  5. Great post! There are enough health terms to make anyone go completely mad!

  6. Very interesting. I have been trying to buy more organic foods lately but like you said it's hard to know what will work for us and what won't. Thank you for sharing this!

  7. Great article! It can be so confusing to understand terms sometimes and this clears it up nicely :) Thank you so much for sharing on the Healthy Living Link Party! We hope you'll come back tonight!

  8. I love this, unless you've done some serious research it's hard for people to know the difference!


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