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Justin Lane  /  EPA
The U.S. Department of Agriculture specifies in great detail the rules producers must follow in order to call their products “Organic” or “USDA Organic.”
By Herb Weisbaum ConsumerMan
msnbc.com
updated 8/21/2008 8:15:57 AM ET 2008-08-21T12:15:57

Food labels are a lot like the headlines on magazine covers. They’re designed to catch your eye and make you buy.

Some label claims are helpful — they give factual information about what’s inside.

Others are pure hype created by marketing departments to make the product stand out from the crowd.

Go down the supermarket aisles and look for the products that promise to improve your health by boosting your immunity.

  • Dannon claims its Danactive Yogurtis "clinically proven to help strengthen your body's defenses."
  • Green Giant’s new Immunity Boost Frozen Vegetables are "carefully selected" to have more vitamins A and C.
  • Kraft “enhanced” some Crystal Light drink mixes with vitamins and antioxidants to create Crystal Light Immunity.
  • Drinking Spava Immunity Coffee “may help strengthen your body’s natural immune system and promote overall wellness.”

David Schardt, senior nutritionist at the Center for Science in the Public Interest, says loopholes in federal label regulations make it possible for a company to claim its products are good for your immune system without any proof — no tests, no studies.

“They're playing with us,” Schardt says. "These are meaningless claims designed to move product. They know this claim is something we're going to be attracted to, even if there's no evidence that the stuff really helps." Schardt advises consumers to be skeptical of all immunity claims.

Organic label: You can trust it (usually)
The U.S. Department of Agriculture regulates organic food. USDA specifies in great detail the rules producers must follow in order to call their products “Organic” or “USDA Organic.” Producers are certified and regularly inspected to make sure they meet these standards.

But can you trust the organic label on food that is imported from China? Some consumer experts urge caution.

“I would personally not buy anything certified as organic from China,” says Linda Greer, an environmental toxicologist with the Natural Resources Defense Council, who is familiar with food products from China. “China has a very, very small, almost non-existent food testing program,” she says. “I’d be concerned that despite the organic label, the food might be adulterated.”

Marion Nestle, a professor of nutrition at New York University, tells me all food from China is suspect at this time. She says the Chinese government is trying to improve food safety, but they don’t yet have a system to deal with the produce grown on millions of family farms.  “Until that work gets done and until importers and distributors can assure the public that this is done to the highest public standards, we need to be wary.”

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One more thing: You can skip the organic seafood. “It’s a waste of money,” says Lisa Lee Freeman, editor in chief of Shop Smart magazine. The term is meaningless because there are no government standards for organic seafood. That means fish can be labeled organic even if it contains mercury or some other chemical contaminant.

So how do you know what to buy? These three sites can help you choose seafood that tends to be toxin free and that is not overfished: Blue Ocean Institute, Seafood Watch and Oceans Alive.

By the way, you can trust the terms farm-raised and wild-caught. They are required on seafood and are regulated by the federal government.

They sound good, but mean little
If given the choice, wouldn’t you like to eat more natural foods? Natural just sounds better and seems more healthful. But don’t confuse the term natural with organic. They are not the same.

Natural is only loosely defined. Federal regulations allow food products to be labeled “natural” if they are minimally processed and do not contain any artificial ingredients or added color. For meat and poultry, the term natural has nothing to do with what the animals are fed or how they were raised.

Freeman says natural “gets slapped on all kinds of products.” For example, meat can be pumped up with broth and water and still be called natural. That’s why she considers the claim to be meaningless.

The definitions are even more nebulous for two other terms sometimes used on poultry products: “Free Range” and “Free Roaming.” To make these claims, the farmer is only required to give the birds a chance to go outside for a couple of minutes each day. It doesn’t matter if they actually go out when the barn door is open. The USDA has only defined the free range/free roaming claim for poultry, not eggs.

If it is important for you to know how animals are treated before slaughter, look for the “Certified Humane Raised & Handled” label. It certifies that the cow, pig, chicken or sheep was handled gently to minimize stress, had proper shelter, access to fresh water, sufficient space to live, and was able to engage in its natural behavior. For cows that means access to a pasture or exercise area for at least four hours a day.

The bottom line
It wasn’t so long ago that supermarket shoppers wanted food that was wholesome and good tasting. Today, we expect so much more. Labels can tell us how the food was produced and what ingredients are in the package. They can even point us, in some cases, to food that will improve our health. But labels can also mislead.

While some terms, such as organic, reduced calorie, low fat, fat-free and trans-fat free are regulated and defined by the federal government, many other terms are not.

You can always trust the Nutrition Facts Label to give you a true picture of what is inside the package. It has all the important information you need to know — the amount of fat, cholesterol, fiber, sugar, sodium, protein, vitamins, minerals, and calories per serving — to make smart choices at the grocery store.

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