“Natural,” “organic,” and similar buzzwords on food labels give the impression their contents are less processed, more nutritious or better for us. Some people fear foods without these labels may have additives and contaminants that increase risk of cancer and other health conditions.
But sometimes these foods are more expensive, and not everyone can afford them. It can be hard to decide which packaging claims are worth your money.
Avoiding certain food additives and possible contaminants is a personal choice, said Ashley Short, a Marshfield Clinic dietitian. As you make your decision, think about what claims on the packaging really mean and check the nutrition label. You should try to match your food values with your food dollars.
“Eat a well-balanced and nutrient-dense diet no matter what buzzwords are on the food packaging,” Short said. “For example, it isn’t necessarily better to choose organic cookies over an apple just because the apple isn’t labeled organic.”
What do food packaging claims really mean?
GMOs, or genetically modified organisms, are plants or animals whose genetic material has been modified to have specific traits using DNA from different living organisms. Genetically modified animals aren’t approved for human consumption in the U.S.
People have consumed GMOs for 20 years, but they’re still a controversial topic. Some people are concerned they affect food’s nutritional value and create allergens or toxins in the foods. There is currently no documented evidence of human or animal health risk, but there is good reason for ongoing research.
“We’ve seen a lot of progress in mandatory food labeling,” Short said. “You may have seen food labeling statements like ‘partially produced with genetic engineering’ or ‘not made with genetically modified ingredients,’ or ‘non-GMO.’ It’s wonderful that food labels are helping consumers make educated decisions based on their food values.”
Natural and organic
The FDA doesn’t have guidelines for using “natural” on food packaging, so you’ll need to check the label for artificial flavors and ingredients if you want to avoid them.
An organic label tells you more about what you’re getting because the U.S. Department of Agriculture has defined the term. Organic foods are free of pesticides, chemical fertilizers and dyes. They must not be processed using industrial solvents, irradiation or genetic engineering. Food manufacturers may use a few different organic labels:
- 100% organic
- USDA organic or certified organic – contains at least 95 percent organic ingredients
- Made with organic ingredients – contains at least 70 percent organic ingredients
So far there’s no concrete evidence that eating organic food improves human health.
“Fruits, vegetables and whole grains should be part of your diet whether they’re grown organically or not,” Short said.
Hormone-free and antibiotic-free
Labels on pork or poultry products claiming they have no added hormones are meaningless because the FDA requires all pork and poultry sold in the U.S. be raised without added hormones. Cows, however, may be raised with natural and synthetic growth hormones.
Antibiotic residue in meat is already regulated, but livestock and poultry may receive antibiotics to promote growth and prevent disease. The FDA is taking action to limit non-medical antibiotic use to reduce antimicrobial resistance.
There’s still debate in the scientific community over whether growth hormones and antibiotics given to animals raised for food affect human health.
The USDA in 2016 dropped its definition for grass-fed livestock. However, the standard is still on the USDA’s website. It states the animal must be fed grass or grass-based feed after it’s weaned and must have continuous access to pasture during the growing season.
As with other claims, it’s not clear whether eating grass-fed means healthier or more nutritious.
Wild-caught and farm-raised seafood
Wild-caught fish come from natural bodies of water like oceans, rivers and lakes. Farm-raised fish may be raised in tanks, ponds or irrigation ditches. In both cases, the fish may be exposed to unfavorable conditions or harvesting practices.
“A bigger concern is heavy metal contaminants like mercury in certain types of seafood,” Short said. “Try to limit your intake of fish that’s higher in mercury.”
If you still think packaging claims are a little unclear, you’re not alone. Your best bet is to choose a balanced diet and to keep reading evidence-based scientific information about food production.