There's a lot of confusion these days about what some food related terms mean and more importantly, what they don't mean. When we pick our groceries, we naturally encounter at least a few of these terms. Now with the surge in the health food industry, these words start to pop up everywhere and it is really important to understand what they actually mean rather than what the companies want you to think it means. Originally, I thought that one post could cover all the potentially confusing terms I could think of. It turns out that I could probably write a separate post for each of the terms, but I wanted to just get a semi-brief synopsis out there.
Note: It's important to keep in mind that these terms may differ depending on which country you are in.
Here are the first few terms that you should understand:
Natural/All-natural: a vague term that refers to foods that have not been "significantly altered" by processing. This means that foods fortified with vitamins and minerals, foods with additives, and foods with artificial coloring are not considered all-natural. It also means that if something is taken out of the food in processing, it can no longer be considered "all-natural." Be aware that processed foods can contain natural ingredients, and many get around this by saying "98% natural" or something similar.
Organic: refers to the way crops are grown and the type of chemicals, herbicides, insecticides, and fertilizers used to promote plant growth and deter pests and disease. According to the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA), “organic farming systems rely on ecologically based practices such as cultural and biological pest management, exclusion of all synthetic chemicals, antibiotics, and hormones in crop and livestock production.” “Organic” does NOT automatically mean that a particular food is healthy, low fat, or anything else that is commonly associated with it. For example, “organic cookies” can still be filled with sugar, meaning it is still a food that should likely be classified as food that does not promote health. All it means is that it is made with organic flour, organic sugar, organic chocolate, etc. There has been a lot of discussion around whether eating organic is worth it, and we’ll discuss this in a future post!
Gluten free: does not mean it is healthier, calorie-free, carbohydrate-free, etc. It simply means that there is no gluten in that particular product. Gluten free products can still contain dairy, eggs, etc. and aren't always healthier than the "regular" product. Use the same discretion that you would use with "regular pretzels" (as an example) before downing a whole bag of gluten-free pretzels!
Wheat free: does not mean the same thing as "gluten free." For those with celiac disease or a gluten sensitivity, eating foods that say "wheat free" are not all safe to eat! Remember that gluten can be found in many other grains besides wheat.
Free range: means that the animal (poultry in particular) has access to the outdoors rather than being stuck in a cage indoors. However, it has been revealed that some free range chickens are not in significantly better conditions than non free range. The USDA does not state how long the chickens must be outside for or how big the outdoor area must be.
So yes, unfortunately we all need to have a little bit of that consumer watchdog in us when it comes to picking foods. You cannot assume that just because you see one of those terms that generally make us think it's a healthier option, that it actually is. What is the solution? Eat foods that are not processed and that contain few ingredients. Finally, don't get too caught up in the marketing terms found in the food industry, and do your research from validated resources instead of just viral posts you may see on social media!
north york naturopath, Dr. Christine Cho, naturopathic medicine, gluten free, organic, natural, wheat free, free range