I always like to share recipes or products with you that I find useful. This time I have a special guest who has some knowledge on the food labels. James Kim, a writer for foodonthetable.com offered to submit a guest post on “Food Labels: Which Can You Trust?” for my blog and I am more than happy to have him share what he knows! Welcome James, and I hope all of you find his post helpful and informative.

(I was not sponsored by Food on the Table nor do I have any connection with them.  I just think it is an important topic to discuss.)

The Good (and Bad) of Food Labels

It’s fairly well accepted at this point that food labels are there to help us. And it’s true: they are. However, that doesn’t mean that all labels are completely honest or that there aren’t some that are deliberately misleading. If you want to be able to enter into your meal planning with as much confidence as possible, you need to have some basic knowledge of the main good and bad labels out there.

So, what should you definitely not trust? “Natural” and “local.” Those both seem like pretty good labels, though, so one at a time. First, you shouldn’t put much stock in the label “natural” because it doesn’t really mean much at all and isn’t very restrictive for food manufacturers. According to the FDA, natural food is “food [that] does not contain added color, artificial flavors, or synthetic substances.” Rather than checking for this label, you should read over the ingredients list and judge it for yourself to be safe.

Then you have the label “local.” Much like natural, this label doesn’t really say anything. The common opinion is that local means that an item must have been grown within 100 miles of where it’s being sold. However, no one checks to see if products labeled with this meet that type of requirement. In other words, the only time you can truly know that you’re buying local product is by going to the closest farmer’s market where you can interact with the person who actually grew it.

Those two labels are some of the worst, so don’t worry that everything you see is some trick. In fact, you probably see one of the best labels every day: “certified.” Certified is used on meat products and, as explained by the Food Safety and Inspection Service, certified products are judged according to “quality characteristics” like the grade of the meat. At first you might be leery because all those criteria aren’t the clearest, but you really don’t have anything to worry about. Without fail, certified meat is significantly better than meat that isn’t certified.

One label that has picked up a lot of steam lately is “organic.” This is a very intuitive label, as organic food is simply “produced without using most conventional pesticides; fertilizers made with synthetic ingredients or sewage sludge; bioengineering; or ionizing radiation.” The farms and processing facilities involved in the life of an organic product must be examined by a government-approved group, too, leaving no doubt as to the accuracy of the label. Even better, the label you see changes based on exactly what percentage of ingredients are organic in any product. These different labels are: “100% organic” for 100%, “organic” for 95% or more, “made with organic ingredients” for 70% or more and “contains organic ingredients” for 70% or less.

You’ve probably seen it most often when hearing about coffee; “fair trade” is the last of the labels here. Given by the company FLO-CERT, the “fair trade” label means that everyone who dealt with the product from field to store was given their “fair” share. In other words, small farmers of poverty-stricken countries are protected from big corporations bullying them out under fair trade guidelines, which is definitely a positive.

In the end, food labels really are there to help you. Yes, they can be tricky and some are basically lying on purpose, but if you go shopping armed with this knowledge, you’ll be well on your way to picking out the good from the bad with ease.

James Kim is a writer for foodonthetable.com.  Food on the Table is a company that provides online budget meal planning services.  Their goal is to help families eat better and save money.

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