Organic does not mean it’s healthy
Gluten free does not mean it’s healthy
Made with whole grains does not mean it’s healthy
Fat free does not mean it’s healthy
The list goes on!
So what the heck do they mean?
Oxford tells us organic is defined as “produced or involving production without the use of chemical fertilizers, pesticides, or other artificial agents.”
So yes, if all other pieces of a product are the same, but one is made purely from organic ingredients and one is not, then the organic version is the healthier choice. But, if the food we are talking about is loaded with sugars, processed, laden with ingredients that are not exactly nourishing, but the item is technically ‘organic’, would you call that healthy?
Gluten free simply means there is no gluten in the item. It has nothing to do with whether or not the item is ‘good for you’. No gluten, but loaded with sugar. No gluten, but a terribly poor quality piece of meat. No gluten, but smothered in butter. See how simply stating there is no gluten does not mean the food is a great choice in a day’s diet? Gluten free is a label for people who need to or choose to take gluten out of their diets, and not a label that tells us whether or not the item fits into my or your overall healthy diet.
“Made with Whole Grains”
Oh how this marketing stunt drives me crazy! “But the box says it’s made with whole grain, so that means it’s healthy,” is a statement I’ve heard more than once from people trying to make healthier choices but without the education beyond what a marketer promotes. Do you remember when the whole grain shift started and marketers dove into making sure that any processed good that had above the minimum requirement of whole grains to have this notation had it prominently placed on the front of the boxes? I do. Fantastic to have way more products than in the past using whole grains in their ingredients– I am so happy about that– but it is skewed in that often people assume that ‘made with’ means it is good all around. Sadly, there is a small amount of whole grain that needs to be in a product in order to use that phrase, leaving the rest of the ingredients list to still be filled with ‘unbleached wheat flour’, “enriched wheat flour”, and other varieties now stripped of their nutritive properties.
Of note: ‘made with whole grain’, ‘whole grain rich’, ‘whole grain’ each have different legal requirements of the minimum amount of whole grain involved to make the claim. We want to strive to be educated and aware of what we are putting into our bodies, and these slight variations in wording have big effects in the ingredients.
What do we want to look for?? The first ingredient should be a whole grain. The list of ingredients to be short. To see if there are a lot of ‘extras’-- additives, sugars, syrups, words you can’t pronounce… The less processed and the more ‘from the earth’ the better. A grain before it is processed and stripped of its nutritional benefits.
Take out all the fat from a processed food, what else has to be done for it to still taste like you hope it will taste? Often, when a manufacturer takes out the fat, they add in sugar, artificial fill-in-the-blanks, chemicals… For the most part, only foods that are naturally fat free (i.e. apples, spinach, etc.) haven’t been altered in order to procure a ‘fat free’ label. Does this mean everything that has a ‘fat free version’ is inherently a poor choice? No, but it does mean we need to look further: what are the ingredients as a whole (sense a trend with this statement?) and is there a reason we need to cut back on fat, or is the full or low fat version fine for us?
Which leads me to: ‘Fat’ does not equal ‘bad’. We all need fat in our diets, and the healthier the fat options the better (that’s for another post!). The problem is how America as a whole tends to consume it: too much, and often the poorest qualities of fat. On the other hand, limiting our fat intake too much can result in eating more calories from lack of satiety as well as health problems that can come from not having healthy fats in our bodies (weakened immune systems, vitamin deficiencies, and more). Check out the recommended daily values for you, and then find healthy fat sources to use in your diet (olive oils, avocados, etc.).
“Atkins”, “Keto”, “Paleo”, any of the others ‘diets’ branding
Have manufacturers jumped on the bandwagon with these guys or what? Everywhere, I see new products coming on the market with these words tacked on to or as the title. I’ve seen protein bars labeled as the above with so many ingredients in them that the font has to be barely readable in order to fit it all on the package. I’ve seen tiny bars with over 300 calories, which most of us just do not need in a single bar (there are plenty of exceptions here, of course). Again, if you haven’t figured it out by now in this post, it comes down to an overall picture of the food/product. What are the ingredients? How does this product fit into your day’s calories and nutrition? Is it made with real food, or are the ingredients things you’ve never heard of?
Can foods in any of these categories be healthy? Yes, of course. But the label itself does not equal a certain level of ‘healthiness’. Never purchase a product based on the marketing alone. Look at the label, look at the other ingredients and how it is made, try to eat less or not processed foods, and make your decisions based upon a WHOLE entity, not just one aspect of it.
This is a very brief overview of a very big topic, so I encourage you to read further from trustworthy sources and reach out if you want to dive deeper into your health journey.
Armed with some base knowledge when we go into stores or restaurants, we set ourselves up for many more healthy choices for life.