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How to Understand Food Labels

Dr. Elizabeth Yuko is the Health Editor at SheKnows. She is a bioethicist and writer specializing in sexual and reproductive health and the intersection of bioethics and popular culture. She is an adjunct professor of ethics at Fordham ...

Yes, you have to wash organic produce & other food label tips

Labels on food are supposed to help us make better, healthier decisions, but all the different terminology — gluten-free, certified non-GMO, organic — can make it even harder to choose the foods that best fit within our budget and lifestyle.

As part of a discussion at #BlogHer17 on decoding food labels, a panel of all-female farmers and agriculture experts gave tips to help us navigate “grocery cart confusion.” Consisting of Kristen Reese, a lifelong farmer and blogger behind Local Farm Mom, Lori Anne Carr of Titan Farms (the largest peach grower on the east coast), Michelle Miller, better known as The Farm Babe, and dietitian Leah McGrath, the panel answered questions and offered tips for getting the most out of your food.

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1. GMOs are not new

GMOs — or genetically modified organisms — get a lot of press these days, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that we understand what they are. Technically, GMOs are any organisms — including plants, animals and microorganisms — in which the genetic material (the DNA) has been altered in a way that would not occur naturally.

This may sound like something new or even out of science fiction, but it’s not at all. Humans have been tinkering with plants for millennia by selectively breeding crops that have desirable traits. What differs is the technique, which today takes place in a lab rather than farmers trying to hand-pollinate blossoms.

Also, “GMO isn’t an ingredient,” Miller said, adding “literally everything we eat has had its genes modified by humans.”

Miller also noted that there’s a reason why around 95 percent of farmers in the United States are growing GMO varieties — “because it helps us be better farmers.” For example, she said that planting GMO vegetables with traits that make them less prone to insects means that less pesticide is necessary, which is better for the environment and our health.

2. “Organic” doesn’t mean “pesticide-free”

One misconception each of the women on the panel wanted to put to rest was that organic produce means that it is grown without the use of pesticides or chemicals.

“Organic farms use chemicals too — they’re just organic chemicals,” Carr, whose farm includes 7,000 acres of fruits and vegetables, explained.

And for the record, just because something is “organic” doesn’t mean that it’s not genetically modified. This also seems to be a source of confusion.

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3. Just because a food is labeled “organic” or “non-GMO,” it doesn’t mean that it’s healthy

Organic, non-GMO junk food is still junk food — these designations don’t add any nutritional value to the foods. (See: Basically all of Trader Joe’s snack food aisle.)

4. Labeling something as “Non-GMO Project Verified” is partially a marketing strategy

You’ve probably seen the Non-GMO Project label with the butterfly logo while shopping in the supermarket, but do you know what it actually means?

Yes, it means that the product does not contain GMOs, but it is also a marketing technique.

Given all the distrust of GMOs and questions of safety, “the brands hear fears of consumers and take action,” McGrath said.

“Fear is the new sex when it comes to selling products,” Miller added.

The Non-GMO Project Verified label is not simply awarded to qualifying products. It’s something that must be purchased. The costs vary depending on whether the farmer is applying for a product with a high-risk ingredient, like soy or corn.

The label is also slapped on products that cannot be genetically modified (because they don’t contain any genetic material). Examples include sea salt and cat litter. In these cases, there are no health benefits to being labeled as Non-GMO Project Verified, and in reality, all salt and cat litter is non-GMO. But a way they can differ is by charging higher prices.

“Labels on the front of the package are like makeup,” McGrath said. “A lot of times they make products look better than they are.” 

5. Pay attention to the country of origin on produce

One label Carr does suggest paying attention to is the country of origin. This isn’t as much out of concern to “eat local” (more on that in a minute), but because of the fact that the USDA has strict guidelines for produce and holds farmers to standards that may not be met in other countries.

According to Carr, her biggest fear is that someone will get sick because of the food she grew, so she takes all precautions possible to ensure that her fruits and vegetables are safe.

6. You still need to wash organic produce

Washing all fruits and vegetables — regardless of where they came from and whether or not they are organic — is an important part of food safety. McGrath cautioned that extra attention should be paid to produce purchased from roadside stands. She also said that people have told her that they don’t think they need to wash organic produce — something she said is definitely not the case.

Consumers who would like more information on pesticide residue can visit SafeFruitsAndVeggies.com.

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7. “Local” can have a broad definition when it comes to food

“Local” is another food buzzword of the moment, encouraging people to eat foods produced near where they live. But it’s not that simple. According to McGrath, labeling something as “locally grown” doesn’t necessarily mean much. Sometimes it just means that it was grown somewhere else in North America.

8. GMO apples are coming soon

Next up on the list of genetically modified foods? Apples that don’t turn brown when you cut them.

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