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Industry wrestles with health terminology

SHAPE February 2017


As Americans take an increasing interest in their health and well being, many are finding themselves confronting an often bewildering array of terms that make a wide range of nutritional claims.

Over the past five years or so a new definition of “healthy” and healthy eating has emerged, says Amy Myrdal Miller, president of Farmer's Daughter Consulting. “Today we are seeing a big shift in how consumers define 'healthy,' and much of that has to do with broader, more complex claims like natural, sustainable, fresh, artisan, real and clean.”

In fact, the use of “healthy” terms on menus has grown, says Datassential. “While the word 'healthy' itself has remained steady and has not grown dramatically, 'healthy words' have — particularly those that meet today’s definition of healthy,” the research firm says. “Mentions of the word 'natural' — on 22 percent of menus — has shown steady growth over the past decade. It’s up 76 percent since 2005 and 18 percent over the past four years. Similarly, the term 'organic' — on 21 percent of menus — has grown 243 percent since 2005 and 36 percent over the past four years.  Its growth is especially seen at fast casual and fine dining establishments.”

As a result, says Blaire Newhard, a culinary dietitian with Healthy Dining in San Diego, “It is important for restaurateurs and chefs to be aware of their definitions because most of these terms are regulated in some capacity. It is also important that communication with customers by using these terms be consistent within the industry so that the terms are not associated with common misuse and misbranding, which would diminish their meaning.”

Some of the more commonly used health-related food and menu terms, and what they mean are as follows:

Antibiotic-free: For meat or poultry products if sufficient documentation is provided by the producer to USDA demonstrating that the animals were raised without antibiotics.

Cage-free: Usually referring to eggs produced by hens housed in a building, room or enclosed area that allows for unlimited access to food, water, and provides the freedom to roam within the area during the laying cycle, according to the USDA.

Fresh: The term "fresh," when used on the label or in labeling of a food in a manner that suggests the food is unprocessed, indicates the food is in its raw state and has not been frozen or subjected to any form of thermal processing or any other form of preservation, the FDA states.

Gluten-free: In addition to restricting the presence of gluten to less than 20 parts per million (ppm) in an item, the FDA allows manufacturers to label a food "gluten-free" if it does not contain an ingredient that is any type of wheat, rye, barley or crossbreeds of these grains. In addition, the FDA states a product labeled gluten-free cannot contain an ingredient derived from the aforementioned grains and that has not been processed to remove gluten; and an ingredient derived from these grains and that has been processed to remove gluten, if it results in the food containing 20 or more ppm gluten.

The FDA says a food label that bears the claim "gluten-free," "free of gluten," "without gluten" and "no gluten," but fails to meet the FDA's requirements is considered misbranded and subject to regulatory action. Restaurants making a gluten-free claim on their menus should be consistent with the FDA’s definition, the agency states.

GMO-free: With the movement toward ingredient transparency gaining traction, genetically modified organisms, or GMOs, have been generating much debate. A GMO is an organism whose genetic material has been altered in order to change one or more of its characteristics. Genetic alteration has been practiced throughout history using techniques such as hybridization. However, the term GMO has become synonymous with the modern technology of genetic engineering (GE), a scientific process in which DNA molecules are altered in a lab to create genetic sequences that would not otherwise be found in nature.

GMO-free is a term to use with caution, advises Myrdal Miller. “There are common foods, like cheese made with rennet that combines from recombinant DNA technology, that make this claim troublesome for restaurant operators. Even if the milk for the cheese is organic milk, the cheese still contains an ingredient (rennet) that is a GMO.

“Congress passed a mandatory nationwide GMO labeling law last June, which will help provide some clarity in the marketplace, but this is a complex issue that requires legal, marketing, and communications expertise.”

Healthy: According to the FDA — which is in the process of redefining this term — “healthy” indicates an item is low in fat and saturated fat, and contains limited amounts of cholesterol and sodium. An item designated as being healthy must provide significant amounts of important nutrients such as vitamin A, vitamin C, calcium,  iron, protein and fiber.

Light or Lite: Basically, the terms “light” or “lite” indicate that the menu item is low in fat, calories or sodium. For foodservice operators the use of the term “lighter fare” also can indicate smaller portions (by at least a 50 percent reduction of the original portion) as long as it is properly defined as such.

Low calorie: According to the FDA, meals and main dishes labeled as being “low calorie” cannot contain more than 120 calories per 100 grams, or a portion size of about 3.5 ounces

Low fat: A menu item designated as being “low fat” must contain less than 3 grams of fat per 100 grams, and not more than 30 percent of calories from fat.

Low sodium: Items designated as being “low sodium” cannot contain more than 140 milligrams of sodium per 100 grams.

Natural: The FDA has not developed an official definition for use of the term “natural” or its derivatives on labels or menus, Newhard says. However, it has not pushed back with regard to the use of the term if the food item in question does not contain added color, artificial flavors or synthetic substances. The USDA allows the term "natural" to be used in meat and poultry labeling on products that contain no artificial ingredients or added color, and are only minimally processed. “The FDA is currently evaluating more than 7,300 comments about how the term 'natural' should be defined,” says Myrdal Miller.

Organic: According to the USDA, organic meat, poultry, eggs and dairy products come from animals that have been treated with no antibiotics or growth hormones. Organic fruits and vegetables are raised without using most conventional pesticides, fertilizers made with synthetic ingredients, bioengineering or ionizing radiation. The USDA provides for four levels of organic claims: “100 Percent Organic” — a product that is completely organic or made of only organic ingredients; “Organic” — a product made with at least 95 percent certified organic ingredients; “Made with Organic Ingredients” — a product made with at least 70 percent certified organic ingredients; and specific ingredient listings — may be listed in the ingredient statement of products containing less than 70 percent organic contents.

Sustainable: According to the USDA, the term sustainable agriculture means, among other things, an integrated system of plant and animal production practices having a site-specific application that will over time: satisfy human food and fiber needs; enhance environmental quality and the natural resource base upon which the agricultural economy depends; make the most efficient use of nonrenewable resources and on-farm resources; sustain the economic viability of farm operations; and enhance the quality of life for farmers and society as a whole.

As we look into the future, chefs and restaurateurs should expect to encounter even more health-related terms and claims, experts say. “As we continue to discover the health benefits of nutrients and phytonutrients, as well as the presence of increasingly common allergens, we will likely see an increase in food labeling regarding what is in and not in the foods we eat,” Newhard says.

 

 


  

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