Explaining common terms found on food labels

When shopping for groceries, some consumers may feel as if they need a degree in nutrition sciences to determine just what it is they’re buying. Food labels can be complex and include various terms that may be unknown to consumers. Understanding these terms can help people make sound decisions regarding the foods they eat.

Cage free: Eggs labeled “cage free” means that the hens that laid the eggs were not raised in caged housing systems, which the Humane Society of the United States has described as inhumane. The organization Food and Water Watch notes that living conditions for hens raised in cage-free environments may still be poor.

Daily value: According to the medical resource WebMD, daily value indicates the percentage of a certain nutrient in a food, based on a 2,000-calorie-per-day diet. WebMD notes that 8 percent is general considered to be good.

Dietary fiber: The Mayo Clinic notes that dietary fiber refers to the parts of plant foods that the human body cannot digest or absorb. Fiber is typically classified as soluble, which refers to types of fiber that dissolve in water, and insoluble, which is used to describe types of fiber that promote movement of material through the digestive system. Soluble fiber can help lower blood cholesterol and glucose levels, while insoluble can help people who suffer from constipation or irregular stools.

Enriched: Foods that are labeled as “enriched” have had nutrients added to them to replace those that were lost when the food was processed.

Fortified: Fortified describes foods that had nutrients added to them that were not present initially. A common example of a fortified food or beverage is milk, which is fortified with vitamin D to help the body absorb the calcium present in milk.

GMO: GMO stands for “Ògenetically modified organisms,” which are organisms that have had their genetic material artificially manipulated in genetic engineering labs. The Non-GMO Project says that a growing body of evidence has connected GMOs with an assortment of health problems and environmental damage.

Grass fed: Grass fed implies that the animals used to produce meat and dairy were fed only grass. Consumer Reports advises consumers to look for seals such as American Grassfed or PCO Certified 100% Grassfed to ensure that manufacturer claims have been verified and that the animals were fed 100 percent grass and raised on pasture.

Hormone free: The federal government of the United States prohibits the use of hormones to raise poultry and hogs, so manufacturers who label their foods as “hormone free” have not gone above and beyond to make their foods healthier.

Organic: The United States Department of Agriculture has strict criteria in regard to labeling foods as “organic.” To be labeled “organic,” dairy, eggs, meat, and poultry can come only from animals that were not given antibiotics or growth hormones. Fruits and vegetables can only be labeled “organic” if they were produced without conventional pesticides, fertilizers made with synthetic ingredients, bioengineering, or ionizing radiation.

Processed: Many consider processed foods to be bad and loaded with additives. But that’s not always the case. The USDA defines processed as foods that have undergone a change of character. For example, cut, prewashed spinach qualifies as a processed food.

Sodium: Otherwise known as salt, sodium is necessary to maintain nerve and muscle health. However, many people consume too much sodium, oftentimes because of processed foods. WebMD notes that sodium intake should be limited to 2,300 milligrams or less per day. Certain people, such as those over the age of 51, African Americans or those with certain conditions, such as hypertension and diabetes, should consume no more than 1,500 milligrams of sodium per day.

Understanding food labels is a great first step toward eating healthy.