Watching Out For ‘Halo Foods:’ What Healthy-Sounding Buzz Words Actually Mean–And That They Don’t

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Food And The ‘Halo’ Effect: Here’s What Those Healthy-Sounding Terms Actually Mean–You Might Be Surprised

In the wake of the genetically modified food labeling debacle of a few months ago, perhaps it is time to identify other food labeling terms manufacturers use to create a health “halo effect” and trick consumers into thinking they are eating healthy.

Sometimes there is truth in labeling, sometimes it is cruel sham, like the Senate bill that was hastily constructed as a fig leaf for big food manufacturers and agrichem businesses who want to be able to sell the public GMO-containing food that we have repeatedly demonstrated we don’t want. It allows food manufacturers to identify GMO-containing foods not by simply saying so on the label, but rather forcing consumers to scan a QR code, visit a website, or call a 1-800 number to find out what’s inside.

And here are a few other deceitful ways food manufacturers try to con consumers into thinking they are buying healthy foods using words that many not always mean what they seem to mean.

• Natural – This word perhaps conjures up visions of golden fields of wheat, sunshine and flowers. At the very least, we assume that foods that carry this word on the label have some relation to foods that are not synthesized or created in a lab. But actually the Food and Drug Administration has no formal definition for “natural.” It means whatever manufacturers want it to mean. So make sure you read the rest of that label, watching out for high-fructose corn syrup and other added sugars, as well as chemical preservatives.
• Organic – Here is another term that seems pretty self-explanatory, but again, big food is big money, and manufacturers are wily creatures. The USDA organic seal means the food was produced without using synthetic pesticides, GMOs, petroleum or sewage sludge fertilizers. If it is applied to dairy or meat products, it means the animals involved were fed organic, vegetarian feed and had access to the outdoors. However the devil is in the details: the above definition only applies to foods labeled “100% Organic.” If a food label just says “Organic,” that means it only needs to contain 95 percent organic ingredients. And “Made With Organic Ingredients” means only 70 percent needs to be organic.
• Local – Again, a seemingly simple label word that has no formal definition from the FDA. What’s more, according to a recent survey, 23 percent of respondents thought that local also meant “organic,” which it does not. And smaller, mom and pop operations often are able to skirt nutrition facts labeling, so be sure to ask for ingredients when buying jam or pie at the farmer’s market that is unlabeled.
• Gluten-free – This one is of course the popular label du jour, with consumers mistakenly thinking that cutting out gluten alone will help them lose weight and be healthier. The FDA actually has a definition for this: manufacturers must limit gluten to less than 20 parts per million. But they also may feel free to label foods as gluten-free if they contain any type of wheat, rye, barley or crossbreeds of these grains. So that’s why we see patently absurd labels on things like gluten-free tonic water.
• Grass-fed – Here’s another deliberately obtuse one: the label is often mistaken to mean organic, though it does not. It means that the cattle must be fed only mother’s milk and forage. It doesn’t mean that the cattle’s feed must be organic, nor that the animal is free from antibiotics or hormones.
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5 Most Confusing Health Halo Food Terms

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