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FEATURE — Natural. Processed. Local. Whole. Organic. No added sugar. Low-calorie. When you read terms like these on food packages, do you know what they mean? Do they lead you to buy a certain product over another? Do they leave you confused?
Food manufacturers use words to increase the appeal of their products. The words they choose are intended to make you think you are choosing the healthiest option. The food in the package may or may not be healthy for you.
To be a smart consumer, familiarize yourself with food marketing terms and what they actually mean.
A truly natural food hasn’t been processed in any way. Most foods have been processed in some way. The term “natural” does not mean the food has added nutritional value or health benefits.
Processed and unprocessed
People generally think of processed foods as bad. Under that assumption, bagged spinach, canned tomatoes, frozen fruits and jarred pasta sauce would all be considered unhealthy foods. Any food that has been cooked, canned, frozen or packed is a processed food. Learn more here.
Buying locally grown foods is a great way to support your community and local economy. There may also be some added health benefits from eating foods in season picked at the peak of their ripeness. However, there is no hard and fast rule for the distance requirements for something to be labeled “local.”
Whole grain or whole wheat
Foods are sometimes labeled “made with whole grains” or “whole wheat,” but they aren’t truly whole grain. The label needs to say “100% whole grain.” Learn more from the Whole Grains Council.
Not all foods labeled “organic” are equal. The USDA has strict guidelines to earn an organic certification. You can learn more by clicking here. Even with an organic label, foods can still be high in fat, sodium and sugar and contain very little nutritional value.
People with gluten sensitivity or Celiac disease should look for gluten-free products. For the rest of us, the label “gluten-free” doesn’t mean it’s the best choice. In fact, many healthy foods like quinoa, oatmeal, rice, potatoes and nut flours are naturally gluten-free with or without “gluten-free” on the label.
To be labeled “low-calorie,” a product has to have one-third fewer calories than the brand’s original version of the product. There is no comparison between brands. Therefore, the low-calorie version of one brand may be just as high in calories as the regular version of a similar product in another brand.
The best way to weed through these and other food marketing terms is to ignore them. That’s right! Ignore them. The easiest healthy eating plan you can follow is MyPlate. MyPlate is a simple, easy-to-understand visual that will teach you the following:
- Make half your plate fruits and veggies.
- Focus on whole fruits.
- Vary your veggies.
- Make half your grains whole grains.
- Vary your protein routine.
- Move to low-fat or fat-free dairy products.
Visit MyPlate.gov and spend a few minutes exploring and learning how MyPlate can help you.
Take it a step further and familiarize yourself with the Nutrition Facts label. It is your best tool in determining what a food package really contains and how healthy it is for you. Click here to learn about each section of the Nutrition Facts label and what it means.
Did all that food talk make you hungry? Here’s a quick, easy and healthy snack idea. See the recipe for four-ingredient oatmeal cookies here.
Not a cinnamon fan? No problem. Leave it out. You can also leave out the nuts and try different add-ins like chocolate chips, coconut flakes or chia seeds. Enjoy!
Written by CANDI MERRITT, Certified Nutrition Education Ambassador.
This article originally appeared Jan. 24, 2022, on the USU Extension Create Better Health blog.
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