bread labels

You Can’t Judge a Food by its Cover

I was lucky to be chosen as an Illinois Field Mom for 2014. This gives me a unique opportunity to meet, learn, see and interact with the farmers who grow our foods. It is made up of a bunch of field trips to farms but our first field trip was to the Ultra Foods grocery store. Here, we met with many of the department heads and had the pleasure of meeting with Jodie Shield, a certified nutritionist. I am a sale shopper and therefore buy what was on sale and looked somewhat healthy. So here I was, ready to test out my theory that it was all over-hype and not worth the extra money. Well, I can tell you when I left I felt 100% wrong and 100% right. So let’s find out what I felt wrong and right about. A caption once read, “Field Moms learned what the label “natural” really means.” And we surely did – almost NOTHING!

“The FDA considers 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 the food.” Sounds good, healthy even but what does all that really mean and can they use it in a way that misleads you? What I came away with was it only means that if it says “All natural” then, technically, what they are injecting, or flavoring comes from the earth. Not that it is good for you. Vegetable Oil comes from vegetables, but it doesn’t mean you should add it to your food. Sugar is most certainly natural but do I want it added to my vegetables? That can’t be healthy – Nope it sure isn’t. Almost anything with sugar tastes better. DUH 🙂 , hence the obesity crisis in this country.

Which takes me to my second point – read the labels – less is more or at least, less is better, in terms of number of ingredients and there is a reason we like certain foods or brands over others. Because they have more salt, sugar, oil, fat and hey, that changes the taste so yes they taste better. You really only know what the food is made up of if you look at the ingredients and how healthy it really is, NOT by the packaging or claims on the front but by the list on the back (or side in small print). They are ordered by most to least. That I knew, but I never thought of the fact that some wheat breads started with whole grain wheat and some started with Enriched wheat – both technically “natural” and “wheat” but if you look into enriched whole wheat it is just as stripped and nutritionally deficient as white so WHY bother? And probably the reason my kids will eat it.

From this trip and some more research I did when I returned here is a litany of label tricks I will now watch for: Amount per serving and number of servings from one product to the next (we often consume more than these amounts, we wind up getting more calories, saturated and trans fat and sodium than the label indicates); Deceiving words like “All Natural” discussed above; No Trans Fat (anything less than 0.5 grams of trans fat can be legally rounded down to zero); Multigrain (It simply means the food is made from several grains, which may be whole or refined); Organic (The evidence is inconclusive as to whether organic produce is more healthful than the conventional kind, but even if it is, an “organic” label on packaged foods is no guarantee that they’re better for you.); High In Fiber (many packaged foods contain added fiber with names such as inulin, maltodextrin and polydextrose. While these count toward a food’s fiber total, they haven’t been proven to offer the same health benefits as the naturally-occurring fiber found in fruits, vegetables and whole grains.); No High-Fructose Corn Syrup (sugar is sugar); Contains Sea Salt (Salt is salt. Sea Salt offers no clear health advantages over table salt.); Maintains or Supports ANYTHING (by saying that a food “maintains” or “supports” normal functions, such as blood pressure, a healthy immune system, or cholesterol instead of stating that it can treat or prevent a condition, manufacturers don’t have to provide any proof.)

There are 2 things I can tell you for sure: All this knowledge certainly will expand the time I spend at the store and I will not be shopping with my kids anytime soon. I had enough trouble when I was just buying what was on sale and thinking I was doing OK.

Lynn Prehm

Lynn was one of the Illinois Farm Families 2014 Field Moms. Throughout the year she visited Illinois farms to learn more about where food comes from. Following each visit, the Field Moms shared their thoughts by blogging about what they experienced on these farms. (City Moms formerly known as Field Moms.)