Is organic food better for you? Maybe not during the coronavirus outbreak. What about antibiotic free or natural foods? This dietitian weighs in with evidence- based answers.
Let’s face it, life is strange these days. COVID-19 has completely flipped our world upside down. We are more concerned about our health and wellbeing than ever before. In a time where food is scarce and getting everything on your grocery list is nearly impossible, consumers need to know the facts – and know how to sift through the scare tactics many food companies use to market their foods. Hopefully this information will help to “destress” your next grocery haul.
To make informed shopping decisions, I think it’s vital to understand exactly what claims like: organic, antibiotics, or natural even mean. That way we can make the best decisions for ourselves and our families in this challenging time.
I want to introduce y’all to something I like to call strategic food marketing:
You’re standing in a grocery store staring at the labels of two of the same food products made by different food companies. One of the items is slightly cheaper in price without any extra labeling or claims, and the other product claims to be “all-natural” and “clean” while also being a tad more expensive. Which product do you think you would choose? If you chose the latter, you, my friend, have unknowingly been enticed by strategic food marketing!
If you don’t think you, personally, would fall victim to something like this, let’s take a look at a study conducted by Dr. Brian Wansink, director of the Cornell University Food and Brand Lab. The study’s purpose was to increase the sales of certain food items by simply changing their names. Sometimes the items kept their plain, boring names and other times they were given more descriptive, attractive names.
For example, on one particular day Red Beans and Rice was served, and then two weeks later Traditional Red Beans and Rice was served using the exact same recipe and same price. At the end of the study, Wansink found that the dishes with more descriptive names sold 27% more than their less descriptive counterparts. Not only did they sell more, but they were also rated higher in appeal and overall taste as compared to the non-descriptive identical foods with less attractive labels.8
All this to say, you might be more manipulated by food labels and names than you think!
You might be asking yourself, “how does this study apply to the food I buy in the grocery store?”. Food marketing is everywhere. Take a closer look and you will find it all over the packaging of the products you buy. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) strictly regulates the words that can be slapped on a package.2 Unfortunately, there are many loopholes the manufacturer can slip through with minimal or no consequences. Manufacturers use these strategies to differentiate themselves from their competition – giving their food items more attractive labels that seduce you into choosing their products.
The following topics covered are my favorites because they remain the most controversial while also being a tad ambiguous. I, myself, still purchase foods with these labels! So, by no means, am I trying to deter you from purchasing foods with these labels. As the consumer, you have the power and freedom to choose what you desire, and you also have the right to explore more information regarding the food you eat. Without further ado, let’s jump into the topics!
The ever so popular “antibiotic-free” labels have just recently become one of my favorites. Although ALL meat is tested equally for antibiotic residues, food companies still use this strategy to assert dominance over their competition. Less than 0.5% of meat tested in 2018 contained detectable antibiotic residues. Farmers, processors, and regulatory agencies work tirelessly to get this percentage down to a zero.1 Samples that test positive for residues are condemned and are not sold for public consumption. For a producer’s first antibiotic violation, corrective action is usually taken through education, and repeat violations (two violations within a twelve-month period) are listed on the Residue Repeat Violator List which can be accessed by the public. 7
I recently read a book by Michele Payn cleverly named Food Bullying: How to Avoid Buying B.S.. In her book, she states that, like meat, the FDA demands that milk containing antibiotics shall never enter the food supply. Samples of milk are taken from a farm’s bulk tank to test for antibiotics before being loaded onto the tanker. Every tanker is also tested for antibiotic residues. If the milk in the tanker tests positive for antibiotics, the ENTIRE tank of milk is discarded, and the farm responsible for the residues is also held financially responsible, sometimes fined, and the shipment of their milk can be refused in the future. She states in her book, “antibiotics are NOT something [farmers] take lightly”.6
Take Home Message:
Our government vigorously tests the use of antibiotics and hormones in our foods. There is a maximum amount that is allowed in livestock and that amount is well below any dangers associated with it. Antibiotics are used to treat animals, much like humans use them. If antibiotics are used in dairy cows then they are separated from the herd and their milk is not used. It is against the law for anyone to sell any meat containing unsafe levels of antibiotics. So it is safe to say that the meat we purchase from the store is safe for us to consume.
Organic Food Labels
Ah, the infamous organic label. This one continues to be a hot commodity among consumers. Sales for organic foods reached $47.9 billion increasing by 5.9% in 2019. 5 The great news is that organic foods are now more affordable than ever. The bad news is that consumers believe the word “organic” plastered on the package means that food must be healthier or higher in nutrient content. To put this into practice, I tested this misleading belief on my sister. While recently visiting her, I asked if she thought organic foods were lower in calories and harmful fats as compared to their non-organic counterparts. She answered with a resounding yes! All this to say, food manufacturers can slap an organic label on a package of gummy bears convincing you that you’re making a healthier choice.
So is organic food better for you? While completing a literature review examining the nutrient content of both organic and nonorganic foods, Stanford University researchers were surprised to find that there were little differences in the health benefits of organic versus nonorganic foods. No differences were seen in the vitamin and mineral content except one nutrient, phosphorus, in which organic products had higher amounts of. No differences in fat and protein content of products were found; however, organic milk did contain higher amounts of omega-3 fatty acids.
We won’t dive too deep into the controversial world of pesticide residues; however, Stanford’s researchers found that although organic produce had a 30 percent lower risk of pesticide contamination, these foods are not necessarily 100 percent free from all pesticides. It’s more interesting to note that the pesticide levels of BOTH organic and nonorganic foods fell within the allowable safety limits. However, in two studies involving children, the urine of those who consumed organic diets was found to have lower levels of pesticide residues. The overall health or harm involving organic and nonorganic foods is still unclear. 4
Take Home Message:
As a dietitian, it makes me sad to hear people say they are afraid to eat fruits and veggies. Afraid because they are not organic or could have harmful pesticides. As it is, Americans already fall short on the daily recommendations for fruit and veggie consumption. Only about 13% of people meet the recommendations for fruit and less than 9% meet veggie recommendations! Research has shown us time and time again that eating more fruits and vegetables aids in disease prevention and promotes overall health and wellness. Don’t you think it’s more important to eat those nutritious foods in any way that we can get them? If you have the means to buy organic food, that’s great! But please don’t stress about it if you can’t. Just buy fruits and veggies and wash them :).
Natural Food Labels
Be honest with yourself – would you choose one product over another because one has the word “natural” on its label? Labels mandated by the FDA are standardized and scientific based; however, the words “natural” or “all-natural” are not mandated or regulated by the FDA and remain highly ambiguous. These labels are marketing tactics used by food manufacturers and have no means of measurement.
The USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) defines “natural” as a product containing no artificial ingredient or added color and is only minimally processed. Minimal processing means that the product was processed in a manner that does not fundamentally alter the product. The label must include a statement explaining the meaning of the term natural (such as “no artificial ingredients; minimally processed”).
A large majority of consumers believe that foods labeled “natural” are made without any GMOs or toxins, and these consumers are therefore misled to fork out more money for these products.6 Concerned consumers have even signed a Citizens Petition asking the FDA to prohibit or regulate the word “natural” on food products due to the confusion it causes. 3 Although the word “natural” on food products remains unregulated, consumers can still make informed decisions filtering out tactful marketing strategies used by manufacturers.
Take Home Message:
Look at the label. Are you looking for organic foods? Are you looking for foods with no hormones added or pesticides? Natural only means the product contains no artificial ingredients or added color and is only minimally processed. The label must include a statement explaining the meaning of the term natural (such as “no artificial ingredients; minimally processed”). So if you’re looking for a food with no artificial ingredients. Look at the label and make sure it specifically says that. Don’t just assume that because something is “natural” it is better.
It can be both frustrating and stressful to feel bombarded by marketing tactics while shopping for food. As consumers, we have the power to sift out the noise and make our food choices not based on what labels claim, but what we desire nutritionally. My advice to you is to continue asking questions about the food you choose, search for answers from reputable sources, and build a happy, healthy relationship with your food!
This post was researched and cowritten by the fabulous Erin Lancaster.
Erin Lancaster is a senior student in the Nutrition and Food Science, Dietetics program at Middle Tennessee State University (MTSU). She was recently accepted into the University of Memphis where she will be completing her dietetic internship and obtaining a master’s degree in clinical nutrition. Her interests are in clinical nutrition, specifically oncology and research. She serves as a research assistant at MTSU and is the Community Service Coordinator of the MTSU Nutrition and Dietetics Association. Erin is passionate about nutrition and can’t wait to become a dietitian so she can serve others through food!
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- “Antibiotic Resistance and Stewardship for Animal Health Professionals – Minnesota Dept. of Health.” Antibiotic Resistance and Stewardship for Animal Health Professionals – Minnesota Dept. of Health, www.health.state.mn.us/diseases/antibioticresistance/animal/
- Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition. “Food Labeling & Nutrition.” U.S. Food and Drug Administration, FDA, www.fda.gov/food/food-labeling-nutrition
- Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition. “Use of the Term Natural on Food Labeling.” U.S. Food and Drug Administration, FDA, www.fda.gov/food/food-labeling-nutrition/use-term-natural-food-labeling.
- News Center. “Little Evidence of Health Benefits from Organic Foods, Stanford Study Finds.” News Center, med.stanford.edu/news/all-news/2012/09/little-evidence-of-health-benefits-from-organic-foods-study-finds.html.
- “Organic Market Overview.” OTA, ota.com/resources/market-analysis.
- Payn, Michele. Food Bullying: How to Avoid Buying B.S. Morgan James Publishing, 2019.
- Schweihofer, Jeannine P., and Michigan State University. “Antibiotic Residue Testing in Meat Results in Few Positive Samples.” MSU Extension, 20 Sept. 2018, www.canr.msu.edu/news/antibiotic_residue_testing_in_meat_results_in_few_positive_samples
- Wansink B. Mindless Eating. Hay House UK Ltd; 2011.