When did grabbing a snack at the store become more like wading through an employee handbook?
There are so. many. words. on every box, bag, and bottle.
And why are all those words as confusing as reading your terms of employment? Are they purposefully trying to be ambiguous?
Food companies hope you get blinded by the health halo.
Much like companies try to blind you with benefits…flex time, paid time off, overtime pay!
But when you start digging a little deeper, you might notice there’s some fine print associated with those benefits.
Like, you only qualify for flex time if you’ve been with the company for two years, you don’t start racking up PTO till you clear the probationary period, and you don’t get overtime if you’re a salaried employee.
The same is true for your snacks. (Or anything else that comes in a package.)
What sounds promising - all natural! low fat! healthy! - is kind of a bunch of meaningfulness corporate mumbo jumbo.
Keep reading for a quick primer on some things you might see slapped on labels and what they might mean.
If you’re looking for a vegan-friendly snack, this label's got you covered because it means there are no creatures or creature byproducts in it.
But it doesn’t mean the product didn’t go down the same conveyor belt as that beef jerky did, and it definitely doesn’t mean it’s healthy.
There’s also no FDA vegan certification. There are vegan labels like the Certified Vegan label from the Vegan Awareness Foundation, to make choosing vegan products easier, though.
Concerned about genetically modified organisms (GMOs)? Like, hell no, GMO!
Look for the Non-GMO Project Verified seal. It’s the only certification that verifies a product has been made by avoiding GMOs.
Or opt for organic because organic foods can’t have GMOs by law.
Anyone else just picture a bunch of ears of corn getting handcuffed and shoved in the back of a police car?
Gluten free is kind of a buzzword right now. Like superfoods, adaptogens, and augmented reality.
Oooh, imagine if there were some sort of AR that allowed you to, like, x-ray a food and see what was really inside.
For now, we have to settle for labels, like a gluten-free seal, which means that product you just picked up is safe if you can’t digest that pesky protein.
Again, just because a product promises gluten-free doesn’t mean it’s good for you. Be sure you’re not blinded by that label and also look for sugar, preservatives, artificial flavors and colors, and fillers.
Talk about buzzwords. The market for organic food is skyrocketing these days, but what does that word actually mean when it’s on the label?
If you see a 100% organic label, every single ingredient is organic.
Spot a USDA label? That means at least 95% of the ingredients are organic.
What about “made with organic ingredients?” I’ll be honest - I thought this one was a load of crap. Turns out, at least 75% of the ingredients are organic.
And, should a product have less than 70% organic ingredients, those ingredients can be listed, but the company can’t make any claims.
This should go without saying but…just because something is organic doesn’t mean it’s good for you. Exhibits A through D: soda pop, chips, ice cream, and cookies.
Also, it just killed me to write soda pop. Where I’m from, it’s just called pop.
Whether you’re just avoiding soy or you’ve got a serious soy allergy, you’re in luck.
Not because you’re allergic (sorry about that) but because soy is considered one of the major allergens, along with milk, wheat, peanuts, tree nuts, fish, and shellfish.
So any product that contains soy must be labeled. You’ve seen those bold words below the ingredients list, right? CONTAINS SOY. Always double check for that.
What’s the first thing that comes to your mind when you hear “natural?”
Maybe, There’s no way she’s a natural blonde!
Maybe Natty Light?
So many possibilities, right? The meaning is pretty vague in the food world and simply means a product that’s free from artificial ingredients and added colors (you know, Yellow No . 5 and Blue No. 40), and that’s minimally processed.
When compared with the organic label, natural is a little more inclusive. Because the definition is so wishy washy and there’s really no certification or regulation around this term, use your best judgment.
Oh, low fat. You had your place in the 80s and 90s when everyone believed eating fat made them fat.
But we’re a little smarter now, and we know that fat is essential for many bodily functions. Think brain and heart health, not farting.
Besides, low-fat food means that, while they’ve removed fat through processing, they've added something back in to make up for the loss of flavor.
Usually sugar or salt, which our bodies end up turning in to fat anyway.
No Sugar Added
Well, that sweetens the pot, doesn’t it?
Not so fast.
No sugar added might just mean that there’s no natural sugar added. Instead, you’re getting something loaded with sugar imposters like aspartame, maltodextrin, and sucralose.
Check out this week’s freebie for a more comprehensive (but not exhaustive because researching all of that would be kind of exhausting) list of sugar-y words to search for when scanning labels.
Is the whole grain the first ingredient?
Is it labeled 100% whole grain?
Keep searching, my friend.
Even if a package says whole grain, there could be a whole bunch of other processed flours tagging along. And, when that happens, you’re kind of losing the nutritional value you were looking for in the first place.
Plus, food companies don’t have to tell you how much whole grain is in there!
Look, sorting through all the bullshit isn’t easy. It takes time to read all those words.
My suggestion? Ignore all that marketing and just flip that product over. Read the ingredients label. See something with ten syllables? Or something that doesn’t sound like food?
Don’t buy it, and don’t eat it. How’s that for simple?
And don’t forget to grab your freebie to help you suss out any sugar pseudonyms. We see you, fructooligosaccharides.