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Study time! Know your food label lingo

Is that food really organic? What's fair trade? Phil Lempert breaks down the meanings of some common food label claims.

How many times have you walked into a supermarket and picked up a product just because of a beautifully designed package? And then you turned it around, read the nutritional facts label and ingredient list and wasn’t quite sure what it all meant?

You are not alone.

What shoppers want on their labels is top of mind these days both in Washington, D.C., and in most food company boardrooms. We polled nearly 2,600 of our readers on about the effectiveness of the nutrition labels on the nation's food products, and 90 percent of our users said that the labels as they exist today “are helpful” but also “confusing.”

When asked which information would be the “most useful” in selecting which foods to buy, the number one response was the listing of trans fats, so let’s start there!

Fats: Trans Fats/Saturated Fats
Trans fats were developed during the backlash against saturated fat — the artery-clogging animal fats found in butter, cream and meats. Food manufacturers then realized that trans fats actually had another benefit — they lasted longer than butter without going rancid. The result: Until very recently, trans fats were found in about 40 percent of the products on our supermarket shelves. According to the USDA, technically, trans fat is worse than saturated fat because saturated fat raises both the good (HDL) and the bad (LDL) cholesterol — while trans fat only raises the bad.

The four things you need to know about trans fats:

  • Scientific evidence shows that consumption of saturated fat, trans fat and dietary cholesterol raises low-density lipoprotein (LDL), or “bad” cholesterol levels, which increases the risk of coronary heart disease (CHD). Some researchers suspect that trans fats also increase blood levels of two other artery-clogging compounds — a fat-protein particle called lipoprotein and blood fats called triglycerides. Equally worrisome, population studies indicate that trans fats may raise the risk of diabetes. Researchers at the Harvard School of Public Health in Boston suggest that replacing trans fats in the diet with polyunsaturated fats (such as vegetable oils, salmon, etc.) can reduce diabetes risk by as much as 40 percent.
  • In 2006, the FDA will require manufacturers to list separately the amount of trans fat that their products contain. Many companies have already started to reformulate and remove trans fats from their products based on studies that show that trans fats (as well as saturated fats) increase a person’s risk of heart disease.
  • You have to check the ingredients label for “hydrogenated,” “partially hydrogenated” or “shortening,” all of which are clues that trans fats or saturated fats are present.
  • Trans fat can be found most commonly in vegetable shortenings, some margarines, crackers, cookies, snack foods, and other foods made with or fried in partially hydrogenated oils. Unlike other fats, the majority of trans fat is formed when food manufacturers turn liquid oils into solid fats like shortening and hard margarine.

Biggest fallacy regarding trans fats
It would be fair to think a label claiming “0 trans fats” means what it says. However, companies are allowed to make this claim — not only on the front of the package but on the nutritional label — if there is less than half a gram (0.5g) of trans fats in a product. This will continue even in 2006, after trans fats are required to be listed. The danger here is that people will look at the label and think “this is fine, it has no trans fats,” not realizing that the average person eats about four times the serving size that is “recommended” — added to the fact that there will probably be trans fats in many other items they eat that day. All in all, they may have consumed several grams of trans fats from products that all claim to contain none. This is why checking the ingredient list is so important.

Organic Foods
There was a time when organic foods were hard to find or just too expensive to consider. But times are changing, and organic foods continue to grow more and more popular. In fact, 75 percent of Americans feel that organic foods are better for their health, according to the latest study released by the Food Marketing Institute (FMI) and Prevention magazine. Today, according to ACNielsen LabelTrends Organic Foods report, sales of organic food and non-alcoholic beverages exceed $3 billion.

Last year, organic product sales grew more than 12.5 percent, which is eight times faster than total food and beverage products, which grew at just 1.5 percent.

The four things you need to know about organics:

  • There are four new organic categories: “100 percent organic”; “organic” — defined by the USDA as containing 95 percent organic ingredients; “made with organic” — which includes products with at least 70 percent organic ingredients; and products with less than 70 percent organic ingredients, which are only allowed to list the organic items in the ingredient panel on the side of the package.
  • All organic agriculture prohibits the use of synthetic pesticides and fertilizers, irradiation, sewage sludge, and growth hormones, and no genetically modified organisms can be contained in anything labeled organic.
  • Standards for being “certified organic” require that the land used to grow organic crops go through a three-year "transition period" to make sure the crops are free of synthetic pesticides and synthetic fertilizers.
  • The organic segment now represents only 1.5 percent of all food and non-alcoholic beverage sales.

Biggest fallacy regarding organics
Many believe there is a nutritional difference between organic and conventional foods. Essentially, there is not — when it comes to the basics of fat, calories and fiber, both are identical. However, a few recent studies have found that certain nutrients, including Vitamin C in frozen corn and polyphenols (antioxidants that bolster the immune system) in peaches, pears and marionberries were significantly higher in the organic counterparts. More research is ongoing as these studies have been vigorously challenged by non-organic interests.

Fair Trade
The certified “fair trade” label now appears on coffee, chocolate, tea, sugar and fruit (including bananas) products. In order to carry the label, each producer must be inspected each year and those products are audited to insure that they are indeed made with fair trade ingredients. Worldwide there are now more than 600,000 farmers, farm workers and tea pickers in over 32 countries that benefit from the program.

The four things you need to know about fair trade:

  • Fair trade means that a “fair price” is paid to farmers through a long term contract and system that is designed to eliminate the middlemen and enable the farmers to deal directly with buyers. For example, the average cocoa farmer receives about $160 per metric ton of cocoa vs. the fair-trade farmers who sell through cooperatives and receive $225 to $300 per ton. By receiving a fair price, fair trade producers typically avoid cost-cutting practices that sacrifice quality — so we are more likely to get a better quality product!
  • Under fair trade certification, no children or forced labor is used.
  • Most fair trade-certified coffee, tea and chocolate in the U.S. is certified organic and shade grown. Products that are not grown in this way lead to the loss of larger trees, which leads to soil erosion from the typically steep terrain, which lessens the land's fecundity and pollutes local waterways. It also results in chemicals contaminating the land, water, wildlife and farm workers. Less than 2 percent of all coffee grown worldwide is fair trade. 
  • Fair trade also means sustainable agriculture. Many of the birds populating North America each summer spend their winters in “coffee country” in northern Latin America. Hummingbirds, swallows, warblers, orioles, tanagers and other native and migratory birds find a safe haven in the remaining forests of shade-coffee plantations. Studies in Colombia and Mexico found 94 percent to 97 percent fewer bird species in “sun grown” coffee plantations than in “shade grown” plantations.  

Biggest fallacy regarding fair trade
Don't assume that all fair-trade products are automatically organic, shade-grown or “good” for the environment. Since there are differences in the practices of companies and farms, it is always best to read labels carefully and look for what they do and do not claim.

Food Allergies
The four things you need to know about food allergies:

  • More than 11 million Americans suffer from food allergies, and predictions say the incidence of food allergies is on the increase.
  • Eight food groups account for 90 percent of allergic reactions. They include peanuts, tree nuts (walnuts, pecans, etc.), fish, shellfish, eggs, milk, soy and wheat. There are a myriad of other things that can cause allergies for some people, including food additives such as aspartame or sulfites, or even genetically modified produce.
  • There are ways in which a label can state that it has possible allergens. This can be stated as “contains _________,” with the allergen listed in immediate proximity to the ingredient declaration. For example, “contains soy and milk.” Or an ingredient that contains one of the major food allergens can contain an asterisk referring the consumer to a statement of explanation. For example, “whey” would be listed as “whey*” and would be followed by “*milk” after the complete ingredient declaration. Ingredients: sugar, chocolate, whey*, coconut; *milk.
  • The Food Allergen Labeling and Consumer Protection Act of 2004 requires that food ingredient statements identify in common language that an ingredient is itself, or is derived from, one of the eight main food allergens (peanuts, tree nuts, fish, crustacea, eggs, milk, soy, and wheat), or is gluten (from rye, barley, oats, and triticale).

Biggest fallacy regarding food allergy labels
FALCPA is an important step forward, but keep in mind that labeling requirements won't be enforced until January 2006. Be sure to read all labels carefully, and be on the lookout for scientific or unclear terms (i.e., “casein” for milk, or “albumin” for egg) until the food industry becomes compliant with this new law.

To get your free TODAY show Food Allergy Buddy Card, go to .

Phil Lempert is food editor of the “Today” show. He welcomes questions and comments, which can be sent to or by using the mail box below. For more about the latest trends on the supermarket shelves, visit Phil’s Web site at .