by Michael Williams
Take a quick stroll down any grocery aisle and you’ll find hundreds of food packages, each carrying a mixed bag of nutrition buzzwords, health claims and purchase incentives.
These buzzwords and claims are used to influence your purchase decision by selling you on perceived health benefits. Unfortunately, many of these have little meaning and some are outright misleading. Below is an explanation to some common nutrition buzzwords that you may see during your next grocery trip.
NATURAL: “Natural” is one of the most pervasive buzzwords. Its actual meaning depends upon where it is used. For meat and poultry, the USDA has regulated the word “natural” to mean the product was minimally processed and is free of artificial ingredients or added colors.
For all other foods, unfortunately, the term “natural” does not have a regulatory meaning. Essentially, it is meaningless. It is used for both whole, “directly from nature” foods and Franken foods full of additives, preservatives and artificial ingredients. The only certainty about foods labeled “natural” is the cost. Expect to pay $1-$2 more for this meaningless label.
If you want to eat more natural, additive-free, minimally processed foods, then look at the ingredients list. Foods that do not have a laundry list of unpronounceable ingredients are likely more natural. Likewise, if you want to have healthier foods, then peek at the sodium, sugar and saturated fat content.
ORGANIC: Organic food is currently the fastest growing segment of the food industry. Foods grown organically are “green;” they are great for the environment and arguably better for farmers (due to less contact with potentially caustic synthetic pesticides). But are organic foods inherently healthy? Currently the jury is still out.
To date, there has been an absence of scientific studies finding any notable difference in nutrient quality between organic and non-organic foods. This carries two implications. First, healthy foods (fruits, vegetables, whole grains, etc.) are still healthy whether they are organic or nonorganic. Likewise, not-so-healthy foods (chocolate cake, French fries, ice cream, etc.) are still not so healthy even if they are organic.
VEGAN: Foods are considered vegan if they are free of animal products (i.e. meat) or animal by-products (i.e. dairy). Eating vegan does have many benefits. The foods are cholesterol-free (dietary cholesterol is only found in animal-based foods). They are also high in fiber (dietary fiber is only found in plant-based foods). Due to occupying a lower place on the food chain, these foods may be more sustainable and better for the environment. Finally, the greatest benefit is for the spared animals (that would be eaten).
Like organics, vegan food is a fast-growing sector of the food industry. It’s also similar in that many people associate the food label “vegan” as meaning healthful. It is easy to understand this misconception, as a high fiber content and absence of dietary cholesterol is beneficial. Unfortunately, this logic does not always hold.
In the last decade the amount of vegan junk food options have skyrocketed. There is vegan ice cream, cookies, cakes, potato chips and candies available in nearly every town across America. Are these foods healthy? Are they healthier than the non-vegan versions? Not necessarily. Although the vegan ice cream, cookies and candies are cholesterol free, they also contain high levels of sugar, salt and/or saturated fat. By increasing these ingredients, the health benefits are essentially negated.
One of the healthiest choices we can make is to eat less food with labels. Chose whole foods, those that actually look like they come from nature (whether plant or animal). This can be done easily by shopping the perimeter of a grocery store or shopping at a farmers’ market.
When purchasing bagged and boxed foods remember the following: Natural likely means nothing (unless it’s on a package of meat or poultry). Vegan and organic food is great for the environment, but not necessarily nutritionally superior or healthier than the nonorganic versions. Finally, junk food will always be junk food even if labeled vegan, organic or natural.
(Michael Williams is a local, Dartmouth-trained Registered Dietitian-Nutritionist. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.)