Digging Deeper: Decoding food labels and what they mean for nutr - WQOW TV: Eau Claire, WI NEWS18 News, Weather, and Sports

Digging Deeper: Decoding food labels and what they mean for nutrition and safety

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Altoona (WQOW) - Grocery shopping can cost time and money, and with dozens of options for products, are customers shopping for foods that are trendy, or just spendy?

Americans spend about 10 percent of their income on food, according to a survey completed by the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA).

Adam Berg, the second shift store manager at Woodman's Market in Altoona, said more customers are being conscious of what is on food labels and the ingredients of products. 

Labels in the store include organic, natural, hormone-free, antibiotic-free and non-genetically modified organism (GMO). Each label has a different set of requirements.

Susan Krahn, a public health nutritionist with the Eau Claire City-County Health Department, said organic is very trendy and growing in demand. "Of all the food label terms, organic has the most specific criteria and the most regulations connected with it," Krahn said. 

To earn the certified organic label, foods must not use antibiotics, growth hormones, synthetic pesticides and fertilizers, bioengineering and more. 

"In terms of health and nutrition, it doesn't necessarily mean that it is healthier," Krahn said. "At an individual level, an organic, for example, apple, probably has about the same nutrition as a non-organic or conventional apple."

When comparing prices for Golden Delicious apples at the grocery store, the organic apple was 60 percent more expensive than the conventional apple. Krahn said organic farming may be better for the environment, which could be best for overall health, but there are contrasting studies on each side of the aisle. 

Compared to organic, Krahn said "natural" food labels can be fuzzy, and there is no set definition for the term. A product labeled "natural" has no artificial ingredients and is minimally processed, according to the USDA. However, Krahn said it does not address food production methods or nutrition and health benefits.  

Foods may also be marked as "hormone free." The USDA said some foods, like pork and poultry, are never raised with hormones, so the label is not always necessary. 

"Just because it doesn't have that label doesn't mean it will have hormones in it," Krahn said.  

The United States Food and Drug Administration approved certain foods, like beef, to be raised with hormones to improve efficiency and said it has no negative health affects on consumers. 

Another common label is "antibiotic free." That label can be added if producers prove animals are raised without antibiotics, according to the USDA. Health officials said if an antibiotic is used, it does not have an impact on consumers, especially if the foods are cooked and prepared correctly.

"For all foods, if an antibiotic is used to prevent or treat disease, there's a withdrawal period required," Krahn said. 

The USDA Food Safety Inspection Service also tests meats for drug residues before they reach the store. 

Recently, the Non-GMO Project, a nonprofit dedicated to a food supply without GMOs, added another label to the list. According to the Council for Biotechnology Information, a GMO is made by adding a well-characterized gene to a new seed to transfer a specific trait. For example, GMO sweet corn has insect resistance, a specific trait that lets farmers use fewer pesticides. 

"GMO doesn't necessarily address the nutrition of a product," Krahn said. "I think on a food, we might often see on the front of the package, 'non-GMO,' or some other statement related to GMOs, and it is addressing the genetic makeup of that organism, or how it was grown."
 
So far, there are only nine GMO crops sold commercially in the United States: potatoes, field corn, canola, alfalfa, soybeans, rainbow papaya, cotton, sugar beets, sweet corn and summer squash. A GMO apple that does not brown will come to the market soon. The Council for Biotechnology Information said on average, GMOs take 13 years and $130 million of research, review and regulation before they can be sold in stores.  

"Everything we sell in the store is going to be safe," Berg said. 

When it is time to grab groceries, before spending more at the store, experts said it is important for consumers to peel back labels, do research and see what they are buying to put in their bodies. 

The Eau Claire City-County Health Department recommended looking past big, flashy words that are used as marketing techniques.

"It is hard to know what the trendy word will be ever year," Krahn said.

Krahn said consumers should check the ingredients list for nutrition information. She said foods with fewer ingredients are going to be more "natural" options. Krahn said ingredients are listed in their order of prevalence, so if the first ingredient is sugar, the food is mostly sugar. 

The labels highlighted here are just a few of the many options in a store. The FDA oversees food labeling terms. More information can be found on the USDA's website.

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