Facts about different food labels

Published 10:02 pm Tuesday, August 28, 2018

In today’s article, I am attempting to clear up some confusion around four trending terms you’ll find on food labels.  I’ll give you some relevant facts and a quick take on them from my perspective at the conclusion of the article.

       Gluten-Free

Gluten is a plant protein found in wheat, rye and barley. 

People with particular medical conditions such as celiac disease, wheat allergies, gluten ataxia (autoimmune disorder), and non-celiac gluten sensitivity should certainly avoid gluten.  The good news is these conditions are pretty rare.  Celiac disease affects less than 1% of the population.  Even the highest estimates of people negatively affected by any of these conditions fall under 10%. 

Aside from the relatively small group of people affected by these conditions, there is currently no evidence that the general population should avoid gluten.  There is no evidence that gluten-free diets are beneficial to weight-loss or general health.  In fact gluten itself could be beneficial for colon health, blood pressure and immune function.

Organic

Organic farming is designed to reduce pollution, promote healthy livestock in a more natural environment, improve water and soil quality, and provide a sustainable system of agriculture.  Organic farmers are not allowed to use sewage (yes you read that correctly) or synthetic fertilizers, irradiation, most synthetic pesticides, anti-biotics, growth hormones or genetic engineering.  Artificial colors, flavors and preservatives are also forbidden.   

The USDA does inspect growers and processors to insure the accuracy of the label and adherence to organic standards. To carry a “Made with Organic” label at least 70% of ingredients must actually be organic and certification is required.  To carry an “Organic” label at least 95% of ingredients must be organic and certification is required. 

As you might suspect the “100% Organic” label does mean just that.  However, products do not have to be certified to carry an “Organic Ingredients” label, and there is no minimum percentage of ingredients that qualify. 

As with many things in nutrition there is limited data of long-term effects of an organic diet versus a traditional diet.  However organic food is potentially more nutritious with more Omega 3 fatty acids and anti-oxidants.  You’re also likely to find less toxic metals, pesticide residues and anti-biotic resistant bacteria.

Natural

While the “Organic” label is regulated and fairly well defined, you will not find such clarity with a “Natural” label.  The FDA had this to say about the topic: “Although the FDA has not engaged in rulemaking to establish a formal definition for the term ‘natural,’ we do have a longstanding policy concerning the use of ‘natural’ in human food labeling.

The FDA has considered the term ‘natural’ to mean that nothing artificial or synthetic  (including all color additives regardless of source) has been included in, or has been added to, a food that would not normally be expected to be in that food. 

However, this policy was not intended to address food production methods, such as the use of pesticides, nor did it explicitly address food processing or manufacturing methods, such as thermal technologies, pasteurization, or irradiation. The FDA also did not consider whether the term ‘natural’ should describe any nutritional or other health benefit.”

Non-GMO (This section was contributed by Richard Kirby, who has researched GMOs as a part of his master’s program, studying Natural Resources Management at Virginia Tech.)

The World Health Organization, (WHO), defines genetically modified foods, (GMOs), as “organisms in which the genetic material (DNA) has been altered in a way that does not occur naturally by mating and/or natural recombination.” While humans have been “modifying” organisms for their own gain for thousands of years, GMOs are considered different from selective breeding because it is done through a scientific process of removing or inserting genes to produce a better product, either for the producer or the consumer. This removing and inserting is something that can’t happen by cross-breeding different varieties of plants or animals.

For example, the USDA is leading an effort to modify plums to be resistant to a disease called plum pox virus. Modifications can also be made to make foods more nutritious such as “Golden Rice”, a type of rice with contains more beta-carotene. This is being done to produce more nutritious foods for areas with a shortage of vitamin A.

GMOs has been surrounded by controversy. Most of the concern is centered around the lack of knowledge about possible long-term effects either to individuals consuming GMOs or to the environment they are grown in. Additionally, many people feel that more awareness or transparency should be made in the process and labeling of GMOs before they hit the supermarket shelf. Despite the controversy, a 2015 Pew Research Center Poll of American Association for the Advancement of Science found that 87% of scientists agree that GMOs are generally safe to consume.

My take

If you have a condition that makes gluten your enemy, you’re in luck.  If you are part of the vast majority that doesn’t have such a condition, I don’t see any reason to give gluten a thought.

I think truly organic or natural foods tastes better.  While there is a lack of long-term health data, it is not a big leap to think that less pesticides, toxic metals and super-bacteria would be a good thing.  Certainly there is potential for organic food production to have a positive impact on our environment at large.  Keep in mind that “Natural” or “Organic ingredients” food labels might not have much meaning.

I don’t believe GMOs are a moral issue, it is an issue of practicality.  GMO’s should be taken on a case by case basis and the total impact of their use considered.  This area of technological advancement has great potential benefit beyond food, but all precautions must be taken against unforeseen or exploitive consequences.