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Between the Lines

Everyday Food, January 2009

Natural
This term appears to imply that meat, poultry, or a packaged food is free of processed ingredients, but words can be deceiving. on packaged goods 

On Packaged Goods
Surprisingly, the terms "natural" and "all natural" aren't defined by the FDA. As such, food companies are free to apply them to any packaged food, no matter how the ingredients were produced. Even genetically modified foods can be labeled "natural." not natural, but safe 

Not Natural, But Safe
Although the FDA doesn't define "natural" and "all natural," it does strictly regulate those ingredients that are processed. Manufacturers must prove that an ingredient is safe in order to include it in packaged foods. 

Organic
This buzzword is sprouting up all over the grocery stores. It usually means a food is more expensive, but is it better for your health? what is organic? According to the USDA's definition, organic meat, poultry, eggs, and dairy come from animals given no antibiotics or growth hormones. Produce must be grown without conventional pesticides, herbicides, or synthetic fertilizers. Don't confuse "organic" with "natural," "hormone-free," or "free-range." 

On Packaged Goods
Products certified and labeled "USDA organic" must contain at least 95% organic ingredients. Products that are at least 70% organic are allowed to use the phrase "made with organic ingredients," but those that are less than 70% can only identify their organic components on the ingredient list. 

Better For You?
Advocates believe organic food is safer, more nutritious, and better for the environment and animal welfare than conventionally produced food (people often think it tastes better, too). The USDA makes no such claims, and some experts want more evidence to support the superiority of organic foods. Stay informed and read labels to make the best choices.

What's Behind the Dates?
"Sell By," "Use By," and "Expiration" dates signal which carton of milk, bag of lettuce, or pack of chicken might be best-tasting -- or safest. 

It's a Matter of Time
We're all familiar with the dates stamped on dairy products, raw meat, and packaged foods, but what do they really mean for your health and safety? As it turns out, these time limits range from government food-safety recommendations to manufacturers' suggestions regarding the freshness of their products. 

"Expiration"
Surprisingly, expiration dates are not required by federal law, except for baby food. Most states, however, mandate that milk and other perishables not be sold after their expiration date. In addition, the FDA warns against buying or consuming foods after they "expire," since they could be spoiled or contain unsafe levels of bacteria. 

"Use By"
This date has nothing to do with food safety. Instead, it's the food manufacturer's estimate of the date after which a product is no longer at peak flavor and quality. 

"Sell By"
As with "Use By," this date relates to food quality, not safety. Food companies display it to indicate the last day a product should be sold. It guides the rotation of shelf stock, but the product is still fresh enough to be stored and used at home.

Heart-Healthy
Love your heart? Then don't judge a product by its cover: Keep an eye on ingredient lists, eat sensibly, and avoid saturated fat and sodium. 

Eat Smart, Eat Fresh
Choosing heart-healthy foods, labeled as such or not, is essential if you are at risk for heart disease or have high cholesterol. However, everyone can benefit from a diet that's generally heart-healthy, with plentiful produce, whole grains, and fish. 

Tricky Term
The FDA doesn't define the term "heart-healthy." So the meaning can vary widely from product to product. Concerned consumers, however, should look for the American Heart Association's symbol (a heart with a check mark) on packaging. To qualify, a single serving of the food must be low-fat (3 grams or less), low in saturated fat (1 gram or less), low-cholesterol (200 milligrams or less), have 480 milligrams or less of sodium, and contain at least 10 percent of the Recommended Dietary Allowance of one or more of these nutrients: protein, vitamin A, vitamin C, calcium, iron, or dietary fiber. Meats must qualify as "extra-lean" under the USDA standard.

Cut It Out!
For heart health, what you avoid in your diet should be as much a consideration as what you do eat. The AHA recommends scaling back on foods containing hydrogenated vegetable oils or trans fats, limiting beverages with added sweeteners, and steering clear of high-sodium prepared foods.

Reduced
Some packaged foods boast this term, but you may not be getting as good a deal as you expect.

What Does It Mean?
The Food and Drug Administration allows food manufacturers to use the term "reduced" to describe a product containing at least 25 percent fewer calories or 25 percent less sodium, sugar, fat, or cholesterol than the regular version of the item.

Don't Assume
Even if a food label says there is a "reduced" level of, for example, sodium, sugar, or fat, it doesn't always mean the product contains low levels of it. A reduced-sodium product such as broth, though lower in sodium than the regular version, may still contain an amount that's undesirable. Check the Nutrition Facts on the label for more precise information.