Understanding Health Food Terms: Organic, All Natural and More

Understanding Health Food Terms: Organic, All Natural and More

By Natalee Goodman

Have you ever found yourself in your local grocery store, looking at products and thinking, “What do all of these labels mean?” In our podcast, Organic and Other Health Food Buzzwords Explained, Dr. Ashley Salomon, MD, highlights ten of the most common and confusing health food terms that her patients ask her about.

  1. Non-GMO Non-GMO means not a genetically modified organism. This means that parts of the DNA in the food have not undergone artificial genetic engineering in a lab and they have not been combined with any other genetic material from other plants, animals, viruses or bacteria. Some of the most common genetically modified foods are corn, soy, canola oil and sugar beets.
  2. All Natural This term means nothing, as Dr. Salomon tells listeners in the podcast. It’s best to just ignore this term unless there are other certifications on the label.
  3. Superfood Superfood is not a scientifically defined or technical term, says Dr. Salomon. Generally, this broad term refers to foods that are nutrient dense and have properties that are potentially beneficial to one’s health. This term is associated with clean, whole foods. Dr. Salomon’s list of superfood examples that she mentions in the podcast includes hemp, chia and flax seeds, berries, avocados, cruciferous vegetables, olive oil, garlic and ginger.
  4. Grass fed This term refers to animals that started out on a diet of grass, but do not necessarily eat exclusively grass as they may have been introduced to grains as well. This term does not mean that the animal lives on a grass pasture. The term commonly refers to animals excluding poultry.
  5. Grass Finished Grass finished is the ideal label to look for when shopping for meat products, according to Dr. Salomon. Though hard to find and more expensive, this label means that animals have been fed exclusively grass or vegetables for their entire life. This is the ideal type of meat because animals that eat more grass and fewer grains have higher levels of omega-3’s.
  6. Whole Food Whole foods are foods that have been minimally processed, minimally refined, and are mostly free of artificial chemicals and additives. Dr. Salomon recommends these foods as it is the cleanest way to eat. Think of it as eating a potato versus eating a potato chip – the less additives and preservatives, the better. Foods containing high fructose corn syrup, hydrogenated oils and dyes, for example, are not whole foods.
  7.  Naturally Sweetened ‘Naturally sweetened’ is a very broad term, warns Dr. Salomon. It refers to any plant derived sweetener. The term includes “healthier” versions such as raw honey, molasses, or maple syrup, as well as sweeteners that are more like sugar such as agave or cane syrup. Naturally sweetened also refers to some sweeteners that are not technically sugar-based such as xylitol, erythritol or stevia. Dr. Salomon recommends reading actual ingredients rather than relying on the term ‘naturally sweetened’.
  8. Pasture Raised This term indicates the animal has spent a portion of their lives on a pasture. This broad term doesn’t define how long the animal has spent on a pasture and also doesn’t guarantee that the animal exclusively grazed on grass. It is often the term used for poultry and eggs, as opposed to ‘grass fed’ and ‘grass finished’ which usually refers to other meats.
  9. Organic In the United States, to be “certified organic” food must be certified by the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) (https://www.usda.gov/topics/organic) and labelled accordingly. A farm must have been free from all chemicals for 3 years before the food can be certified organic by the USDA. Any food with this label is inherently non-GMO, states Dr. Salomon. USDA certified organic must be 95% free of all pesticides, herbicides, chemical fertilizers, and dyes. Organic certification also means that the food is not processed using industrial solvents, irradiation, or any genetic engineering. For organic meat products, the animal must not be given antibiotics or synthetic animal feed. Not only is the food cleaner but those working on the farm are not exposed to harsh chemicals.
  10. Macronutrients & Micronutrients Macronutrients are protein, carbs, and fat. Micronutrients are the vitamins and minerals in food. Vitamins are either water-soluble (e.g. vitamins B and C) or fat-soluble (vitamins A, V, E, or K). Minerals can be trace minerals (e.g. cobalt, iron, manganese, zinc) or macro minerals (e.g. calcium, magnesium, potassium).

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