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Labels, labels, everywhere! What do they all mean?

Organic. Natural. Hormone-free. Gluten free. Today’s consumers are assaulted with a variety of labels that companies are using to promote their products. However, a study by extension specialists at Texas A&M AgriLife shows that most consumers don’t have a clue what some of those labels mean, and some may make ill-informed choices based on the labels. They have created a new program called Path to the Plate to help debunk some myths and demystify labels for the curious shopper.

Most people who read labels do so to make the best choices for their own health or the health of their families. Many consumer lobby groups have taken their charge to the Internet or to social media to laud or vilify certain types of production practices. “Organic,” for instance, is praised, while “GMO” is criticized. As a result, many consumers concerned about their health look for organic, non-GMO products.

Drs. Susan Ballabina and Angela Burkham, AgriLife Extension specialists, said that Path to the Plate was created to “help consumers understand the packaging, marketing and labeling, ‘so you know what the claims really mean.’”

“There are so many brands, so many claims, so many words on the labels describing the product,” Burkham, family and community health state program leader, said. “Our goal is to educate the consumer on what those terms mean, because if a consumer is educated, they can make a wise choice on food products that best meet their needs.”

Here are some helpful pointers about various labels and what’s behind them:

  • The terms “non-GMO,” “natural,” “healthy” and “local” have no formal definitions and are not regulated. The Food and Drug Administration is working on clear definitions of these terms.
  • “USDA Certified Organic” is regulated by the USDA. Go to this page to find out more about organic standards.
  • Adding hormones to poultry and pork products is prohibited by federal regulations, so poultry or pork labeled “No added hormones” isn’t giving you a better product than one that doesn’t have that claim.
  • Gluten-free products are necessary for people with celiac disease or gluten intolerances but are not necessarily healthier for people without those issues. In fact, if you’re not sensitive to gluten, you may just be buying products that are more pre-processed than the natural breads in the baking aisle.
  • “Gluten-free” means nothing on products that are naturally gluten free, including water, milk and rice. If the claim includes a price increase, buy a product that’s cheaper that doesn’t have the gluten free label.
  • Calves are raised on grass for the majority of its life. “Grass-finished” means that the calf didn’t have any grain after it was weaned. A product with that label costs more than a “grain-finished” product because it takes the animal longer to reach market weight. A grain-finished calf also has grass but is given a balanced ration of grain that will produce the same weight in a shorter period of time. Research has shown there is very little difference between the two products in terms of health benefits. Differences may appear in taste.
  • The difference between “whole grain” and “whole wheat”: “Whole grain” contains more than just wheat, while “whole wheat” contains only wheat. Both should contain the endosperm, germ and bran of the grain. However, check the ingredients of the “whole grain” product. If it says “wheat” on the ingredient list, only the endosperm of the wheat is included and not the entire grain.
  • “Enriched” wheat flour is no healthier than regular white flour.
  • “Local” means the product has been produced and processed within 400 miles of its origin.

For more label information, and for agricultural information in general (although the website is particular to Texas) go to http://pathtotheplate.tamu.edu.

Read the original article written by Kay Ledbetter at Texas A&M AgriLife.

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