Reading Food Labels

Person reading food labels at store

With all of the new foods and labels at stores, grocery shopping can be confusing. It's hard to figure out what the labels mean and which information is important. Below is a list of some of the most common terms found on food labels and what they mean:

Conventional – Conventional foods are produced using pesticides and manmade fertilizers. This is different than organic foods. The definition of "organic" is below.

Fair-Trade – This label does not describe what is in a food or how healthy it is. Fair-Trade food was prepared by people who work in healthy and safe working conditions in ways that do not hurt the environment. Many Fair-Trade foods are also organic.

Free-range – the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) allows companies to use this label if the poultry were allowed outside (and not kept in a barn or cages at all times). However, the label does not tell you how much time the animals spent outside. It also doesn't tell you what the outside area was like.

Gluten-Free – the gluten-free label helps people with Celiac disease. People with this disease have bad reactions to a protein called gluten. One easy way to remember which foods have gluten is to think of the letters "B.R.O.W." B.R.O.W. stands for barley, rye, oats, and wheat. More people have become interested in gluten-free diets in the last few years, but if you don't have a bad reaction to gluten, gluten-free products may not be the healthiest option. They can contain more calories than other foods because of the types of grains used to make them.

Healthful – many companies use this label on their products because they want their customers to think the food is healthy. However, the government does not tell companies how to use the word "healthful". For this reason, it is hard to know what it means. "Healthy" is a better word to look for, because companies who use this word must follow a set standard from the Food and Drug Administration (FDA).

Kosher – like "Fair-Trade," this label refers to how food is prepared. It does not explain what is in the food. It is usually used for foods that come from animals, such as meats, poultry, and dairy. Some meats and poultry are not allowed in a kosher diet. Others are allowed, but the way the animals are prepared is watched by a supervisor and follows Jewish Law. Many people think kosher foods are more humane and clean, because some parts of an animal cannot be eaten on a kosher diet.

Multigrain – you might see this label on bread products. It means that the food was made with more than one kind of grain. However, it does not mean that the food is 100% whole wheat or whole grain. Foods with this label could include a mix of refined white flour and whole wheat. White bread that only has different grains and seeds sprinkled on top can also be labeled "multigrain." Look for breads that say "100% whole wheat" or "100% whole grain." Also, see if the first ingredient listed is whole wheat.

Natural – foods with this label do not include manmade (artificial) ingredients. However, different companies mean different things when they use this word. For example, companies can say that high fructose corn syrup comes from corn, and this makes the snacks that include it "natural". This may be true, but the snacks might have a lot of sugar and calories in them.

Organic – there are laws that tell companies how they can use this label. To call a food "organic," companies must meet standards set by the USDA. Organic foods are produced without manmade pesticides and fertilizers. Organic animal foods, such as milk or meat, come from animals that were not given hormones or drugs. However, the USDA does not say that organic foods are safer or healthier than conventional foods.

Superfood – the "superfood" label does not follow any standard. Some companies use this word to describe foods that include a lot of antioxidants and other vitamins and minerals. Some fresh fruits and vegetables are labeled as superfoods, but other produce might be just as healthy as they are. So really, all fruits and vegetables are superfoods!

Do you still think food labels are confusing? The best way to tell what is in your food is by just reading the nutrition facts label. Depending on the meal plan that works best for you, there are certain parts of this label that are important. If you are managing your weight, look for the number of calories in a product. Also pay attention to the types of fat in the food. Fats add calories and can affect your heart health. Sodium is another important thing to look for, because it can also affect your heart. Depending on your medications and insulin regimen, you may want to look for the number of total carbohydrates in the food (not just the sugars). Finally, make sure to read all of the ingredients. The ingredients are listed in order. So if sugar is listed as the first ingredient in a juice, there is more sugar in the drink than fruit juice! This juice is not 100% fruit juice, and it may not be a healthy choice.

The next time you are out shopping, bring this list with you to help choose healthy foods so you can manage your diabetes.

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