Published July 20, 2011
Scanning the shelves of the grocery store, you’re often bombarded with food labels packed with nutritional information you don’t quite understand. We’ve all heard the terms organic and gluten-free, but what exactly do these labels mean to us, and how should they affect our diet?
Keep reading to find out.
What It Means
In order for foods to be labeled as organic, they must first meet national standards put in place by the Department of Agriculture (USDA).
According to the USDA, “Organic food is produced by farmers who emphasize the use of renewable resources and the conservation of soil and water to enhance environmental quality for future generations.”
Although ‘organic’ is typically used as a relatively general term, its meaning varies depending on what type of food you are discussing. If fruits and vegetables are labeled as organic, consumers can trust they are produced by farmers who avoid using bioengineering, conventional herbicides, pesticides and fungicides or fertilizers made with synthetic ingredients. In terms of meat, eggs, poultry and dairy products, it is assumed these goods come from animals that are not given growth hormones or antibiotics.
But consumers should still be wary of foods advertised as “organic” since the percentage of organic ingredients varies depending on the label’s wording.
In accordance with the USDA’s labeling requirements, “products labeled as ‘100 percent organic’ must contain only organically produced ingredients and processing aids,” and those “labeled as ‘organic’ must consist of at least 95 percent organically produced ingredients.” These products are typically marked with the green and brown “USDA Organic” seal, which can be seen on numerous fruits and vegetables and other packaged foods.
Products that contain at least 70 percent organic ingredients may say, ‘made with organic ingredients,’ but foods with anything less are prohibited from using the word ‘organic’ on the food labels. They can, however, list organic items in the ingredient list.
It’s also important not to confuse products advertised as “all-natural” with those organically produced. Only foods that have been processed in accordance with USDA standards can use the ‘organic’ label.
When It Matters
Years ago, organic foods could only be found in health food stores; today, they can be bought in supermarkets worldwide.
But are organic foods really worth the cost? As it turns out, it might just be a matter of personal preference.
In terms of nutrition, the USDA has made no claims that organically produced foods are safer or more nutritious than their traditionally produced counterparts. However, several studies have shown otherwise.
“Results from a study show that organic crops contain significantly more vitamin C, iron, magnesium and phosphorus and significantly less nitrates than conventional crops,” said nutritionist and registered dietitian Keri Glassman, who is based in New York City.
Research from Newcastle University in the UK also showed organic milk to contain 67 percent more vitamins, antioxidants, and Omega-3s, she added.
According to the USDA’s report, “Should I Eat Organic Foods?,” these foods have also been proven to carry significantly fewer pesticide residues. Due to strict regulations, organic foods also contain very little, if any, food additives, like artificial sweeteners, food colorings and preservatives.
What It Means
A protein found in barely, wheat and rye, gluten is responsible for giving bread dough its elasticity, shape and chewy texture.
“Unfortunately, these proteins also have a downside that you’re probably all too familiar with,” said organic chef and educator Leslie Cerier in her current book, Gluten-Free Recipes for the Conscious Cook. “They can be difficult to digest—or worse.”
When It Matters
In order to better serve those who are gluten-sensitive or have been diagnosed with celiac disease, food manufacturers have begun developing gluten-free alternatives for pastas, breads, cake mixes and other processed foods.
Celiac disease is a digestive condition triggered by the consumption of gluten, according to the Mayo Clinic. People who have been diagnosed with the disease often experience an immune reaction in their small intestine when eating goods high in gluten and this response ultimately interferes with the absorption of nutrients.
But what if you’re not gluten sensitive? Should you begin buying gluten-free products simply because you’ve heard they’re nutritionally superior to others?
Research is still underway to determine whether or not keeping a diet low in gluten can significantly benefit your health. But Cerier believes gluten-free grains, like oats, millet and buckwheat, should be incorporated in everyone’s diet.
“Whether you experience gluten sensitivity or not, gluten-free grains are powerhouses of nutrition and many are excellent sources of iron, calcium, and B vitamins,” she explained. “For instance, oats have a variety of benefits ... they can help lower cholesterol, prevent heart disease, enhance immune system function and even be helpful for insomnia, stress, anxiety and depression.”
Like organic products, the manufacturing of gluten-free foods is also more eco-friendly and sustainable, Cerier said.
“Gluten-free grains are environmentally friendly since they are drought resistant and require less land and less water to produce a high yield,” she added. “And as we have problems with global warming, these gluten-free grains, which can grow in both arid and tropical lands, might actually help us feed the planet.”