There are dozens of unregulated, meaningless terms that pop up on food packaging. It’s not just convenience and processed foods that have hard-to-decipher nutrition labels and buzzwords — whole grains, eggs, milk and more display this industry slang — leaving many consumers confused about what they’re actually eating.
We’re constantly wooed by food packaging, with terms like “superfood” and “fresh” catching our eye, which is exactly what they’re designed to do. Even if you know better (for the most part), it’s easy to be swayed into purchasing something (expensive or unhealthy) that you don’t actually need.
Consider this your back pocket guide to deciphering food buzzwords like a pro.
Food Packaging Terms:
Natural and all-natural labels are unregulated terms that mean absolutely nothing, and are frequently used in the wellness sphere. Packages will often showcase pastoral images of grass and farms, while keeping the colour palette in “natural” pastels. Skip anything that’s parading this label around, and look at the ingredient list — the briefer, the better.
Another unregulated term that doesn’t legally mean anything. Superfoods often include things like cacao nibs and goji berries, which are nutrient-dense ingredients, but they won’t make you healthier per se. Eating foods rich in nutrients, like fresh vegetables and berries, is a tastier, more economical way to enjoy superfoods. Of course, if you love the taste of cacao nibs and goji berries, go ahead and eat them in moderation as part of a balanced, whole food diet.
This term is very tricky and differs in Canada and the U.S. In Canada, by law, foods displaying the organic claim need to contain at least 70 per cent or more organic ingredients (grown according to organic standards), and must also mention who certified it. Foods that voluntarily stamp on the Organic Canada logo must contain at least 95 per cent organic ingredients, all of which are certified by the Organic Canada Regime. The organic ingredients in these products must be produced in accordance with Canadian Organic Standards. Imported products, from the U.S. and beyond, that claim to be organic and display the Organic Canada logo, must include the words “Product of” with the country of origin or state that it was “Imported.”
Finally, “organic” does not mean a product is healthy. A box of organic cookies and non-organic cookies will be identical in terms of sugar, fat and calories — the organic version is just more expensive.
Most shelf-stable bread is full of sugar and preservatives, with “multigrain” varieties rarely being the healthiest option. Many whole wheat, whole grain and multigrain varieties often have food colouring added to make them appear browner. Multigrain doesn’t always mean that the product is made with the whole grain or whole grains. Words such as “bran,” “wheat germ” and “enriched flour” may sound healthy, but they’re never used to describe whole grains.
Instead of shelf-stable varieties of bread, go for a local, naturally fermented sourdough. It’s tastier, easier to digest and won’t leave you looking for a post-carb nap. This bread can be sliced and frozen as it won’t keep on the counter for more than a day due to (thankfully) lack of preservatives.
Food product labels claiming to be “reduced fat” often have more calories, additives and stabilizers than their original version. This is most prevalent in peanut butter and cookies, with reduced fat products delivering more calories, sugar, carbohydrates and chemicals than your body knows what to do with. We suggest making your own cookies and choosing a one-ingredient peanut butter.
You can’t actually boost your immune system, so back away from any food claiming to do so. You can certainly support your immune system with a healthy diet rich in vitamins, minerals and probiotics, like these fun (label-free) Strawberry Kiwi Greek Yogurt Popsicles.
Those with celiac disease must avoid all gluten-containing grains, making the popularity of this food trend a good thing for improved accessibility and awareness. However, with only 1 per cent of the population having celiac disease, it’s likely more of a marketing move to make consumers reach for it as the “healthier” option. Like organic cookies being equally as unhealthy as the non-organic version, gluten-free foods can be more refined, sugary and chemical-laden than their gluten-containing counterparts. Head to the produce aisle for honestly gluten-free foods like kale, bananas and beets.
When you see the word “fresh” on a food label, which is unregulated and means nothing in terms of nutrition, put it back on the shelf. For truly “fresh” foods, shop the perimeter of the grocery store, choosing foods such as vegetables, fruit, fish, meat, eggs and dairy.
Next time you head to the store, arm yourself with this cheat sheet and choose more wholesome ingredients to cook from scratch. Luckily, we have hundreds of delicious recipes to get you started with this — and that’s a statement you can trust.