Lessons in Food Labeling
For many, the food label provides the most readily available connection between the farmer and consumer.
Yet, labels too often cause consumers to overthink purchases, says Jodie Shield, a registered dietitian and president of Healthy Eating for Families Inc., a nutrition communications consulting company based in Chicago. Some labels tout local, natural and fresh. Labeling products that contain ingredients from crops improved through the use of biotechnology, or genetically modified organisms (GMOs), has escalated to a political debate. And most consumers misunderstand gluten-free, the latest craze, she says.
Shield, a mother of three, toured a grocery store with Illinois Farm Families Field Moms last year. Many of their questions related to food labeling terminology.
“I think one misconception regards anything that’s labeled organic,” Shield says. “They want to know if for health reasons they should really buy organic products. I told them there is no research saying it is more nutritious or better. It is a lifestyle preference.”
In reality, no legal definition for “local” exists. As a result, the local label becomes a matter of perspective and has little to no meaning nutritionally. The products may offer greater freshness or taste, she says. And certainly supporting a local farmer provides its economic perks.
Meanwhile, Shield sees the gluten-free label on foods like frozen corn, which never has contained gluten.
“It’s wonderful if you medically need to have gluten-free, but a majority of people still don’t,” Shield says.
While the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has not defined “natural,” the agency allows its use associated with no artificial ingredients, no added color and minimal processing.
FDA came out with a ruling on use of the word “fresh” to include quickly frozen fresh produce.
“Where farming is not readily available, we rely on other people to provide fresh product,” she says. “I encourage people to look at frozen products. In many ways, they may be fresher than fresh produce. I’m glad to see the definition has changed.”
And politics and emotions escalate the GMO discussion to a complex issue. As a nutritionist, Shield buys food without regard for genetic modification, a decision backed by research, she says.
“I’m not concerned about GMOs in my food,” Shield says. “I’m OK with it, but I do respect the fact that people want to know more about it.”
As a takeaway, Shield says to start with a commitment to cook and shop with a recipe that fits your family’s health goals and taste qualifications. Then, look at the labels. Avoid the labeling claims on the front, and focus on the nutrition label on the back. Watch for simple ingredients and quantities of sugar, sodium, fat or other contents that fall within your family’s food guidelines.
Shield praises home cooks and encourages their confidence.
“The commitment to cook a meal for your family is the healthiest thing you can do,” Shield says. “We nutritionists try to come in and tweak it.”
Illinois Farm Families Happenings
In 2014, Illinois Farm Families reviewed research into consumer preferences. The findings supported consumers’ concerns about labeling. Seventy-eight percent of moms read food labels and make their decisions about what to buy at the grocery store after looking at nutritional facts and price.
Consumers want information about their food – and having any information ranks almost as high in importance as price.
The American Farm Bureau Federation supports the Safe and Accurate Food Labeling Act, which would help consumers understand the difference between real food safety concerns and marketing ploys by providing a national labeling standard, set by the Food and Drug Administration.
To read City (formerly “Field”) Moms’ insights about labeling from their tour with Jodie Shield, visit watchusgrow.org and type “labels” into the search engine.