Nutrition labels are posted to packaged and processed foods to help consumers make informed choices about the foods they choose to purchase at eat – but the words used on these labels are often confusing and difficult for the average shopper to decipher. As more and more people are starting to pay attention to these labels in an effort to eat better, some clarification is needed to help consumers know which options provide the best nutritional value.
One of Australia’s leading dietitians, Susie Burrell, offers a bit of a breakdown of some common packaging terms, and what they mean for shoppers who are looking to make healthier food choices – starting at the grocery store.
Most of the terms used on food packaging are controlled by the Food Standards Code, Burrell said. But the word “premium” isn’t a regulated word – meaning manufacturers can use it at their own discretion, according to their own definition of what makes a “premium” cut of meat.
“This may have little to do with the nutritional quality of the meat, but rather what the manufacturer sees as its preferred or ‘better’ cut,” Burrell said.
Supermarket packets of meat that flaunt the label “MSA Grade” refers to the system established by Meat Standards Australia to classify meat according to a wide range of variables, including production, color, fat marbling, and acidity. Burrell notes that this grading system isn’t necessarily linked to the meat’s nutritional profile.
Coles meat is frequently labeled “RSPCA-approved,” which Burrell said means the producers of the approved product have adhered to specific guidelines surrounding the humane treatment of animals. Again, she said, this label provides no information regarding the nutritional profile of the produce.
Produce can be considered “organic” based on differing criteria, Burrell said, depending on the body that has issued the certification. However, “Australian Certified Organic” means the product has passed some of the “most tightly regulated accreditation standards,” but she admitted these meat products will come with a significantly higher price tag.
“Generally speaking, organic produce is grown and produced using no chemicals or pesticides,” Burrell said. “Nutritionally, there may be some positive differences including different fatty acid profiles of organic produce due to more natural feeding regimes, and a higher micronutrient content.”
Another ambiguous label is “Heart Smart.” According to Burrell, this term can be used freely by manufacturers – with no clear definition. Generally, she said, meat that is labeled “Heart Smart” will have lower levels of fat, but this is better demonstrated through the Star Rating System. This system classifies meat as “lean” or “extra lean,” and has a clear nutritional panel to let consumers see for themselves how much fat is in the cut of meat.
“As the Star Rating System still remains voluntary, it is unusual to see it on fresh produce,” Burrell said. “Generally speaking, the higher the number of stars, the better the product nutritionally. In the case of meat, this will mean a lower fat content.”
With a more natural diet, “Grass-fed” livestock boasts a better fatty acid profile, Burrell said. The majority of Australia’s livestock is fed a diet of both grass and grain, but Certified Pasture Fed beef can be found at some specialty outlets for consumers willing to pay a bit more.
“Nutritionally, what the animal is fed will have the most significant influence over its nutritional profile, not how much space it has to roam,” Burrell said, noting that the term “Free Range” is another unregulated term that can have many definitions, depending on the producer.
“In the same way that grass-fed may not mean luscious farms with open paddocks, free-range may only mean the animals have access to space, rather than an assurance that they use it.”
Hormonal growth promotants (HGPs) are used in approximately 40 percent of Australia’s beef products – “at levels considered safe by regulatory authorities,” Burrell said. However, major supermarkets have begun promoting “hormone-free” beef, which she said suggests that consumers would rather purchase beef without this additive. Burrell added that poultry in Australia has been raised hormone-free for more than 40 years.