Basic food label learning
In this getting-started primer, learn about common food and product labels for health and environmentally conscious consumers. We’ve also included an egg-buying guide that’s designed to simplify the marketing scramble.
Once upon a time, in a grocery store likely not too far away, many shoppers would have marvelled at the choice of two kinds of eggs: brown or white shelled. Skip past the agricultural revolution during which agrochemicals became a staple in food production, add a few more decades of labelling laws and changing food production practices, and here we are today—well primed for the average consumer to navigate the realms of grocery shelves with a little label know-how.
While words like “natural” and “farm fresh” represent unregulated marketing spin, the same can’t be said for “organic.” Organic foods represent the gold standard in labels and quality, and this applies to both domestic and imported products.
Honouring the environment is the basic tenet behind this traditional form of farming and food production. These eco-edibles are less likely to contain synthetic fertilizers, antibiotics, or hormones; genetically engineered foodstuffs; sewage sludge; or irradiated ingredients. Artificial colourings, preservatives, sweeteners, and additives are also banned.
Thanks to strong industry regulations, any item bearing the Canada Organic logo has met these stringent criteria by containing 95 percent or more organic content.
Multi-ingredient foods with 70 to 94 percent organic content can’t use the logo but can be labelled “contains X percent organic ingredients,” while foods with less than 70 percent are only allowed to identify such in the list of ingredients and can’t make content claims on packaging.
Many people know that genetically modified organisms (GMOs) are plants, animals, or other live organisms that have been modified to create DNA combinations that don’t occur in nature or through traditional cross-breeding techniques. But it’s the ongoing unknowns of GMOs (potential environmental impacts and human health effects are two biggies) that may be reason enough to be concerned about them.
Buying organic (certified, ideally) is a good start, but GM ingredients can also trickle into the food chain through commercial products.
An estimated 60 to 70 percent of processed foods available in grocery stores likely contain some GMOs, including Canadian-grown GM corn, canola, soy, and white sugar beet. Other marketplace culprits are some varieties of US squash, milk products containing bovine growth hormone, cottonseed oil, and Hawaiian papaya.
In response to concerns, two grocery stores—The Big Carrot in Toronto and The Natural Grocery Company in Berkeley, California, created the Non-GMO Project in 2007. The launch of the matching butterflied label in 2010 subsequently took off and now includes more than 2,800 verified brands representing 40,000 products and $19.2 billion in sales.
The Non-GMO Project Verified label means the product has been tested and determined to contain less than 0.9 percent GMO contamination.
For coffee aficionados, finding homegrown beans may be a wee bit challenging, so “fairtrade” fills the cup. Almost 7,000 fairtrade certified products are sold in Canada, ranging from single items such as coffee, cocoa, fruit, sugar, and flowers to packaged items such as beauty products.
Check out Fairtrade Canada’s registered brands and products at fairtrade.ca. All of them commit to fair working conditions for workers and producers, and are distinguished by the FAIRTRADE Mark, an independent consumer label that ensures global products meet ethical and environmental standards.
If supporting our farmers is your passion, look for “Product of Canada” labels, meaning all, or almost all, of the food, processing, and labour to make the food was Canadian.
Second on the patriotic table is “Made in Canada from domestic and imported ingredients,” followed by “Made in Canada from imported ingredients,” which identify consecutively fewer and fewer homegrown ingredients.
If all else fails, it never hurts to personally get to know your food suppliers for a first-hand quality check. Attend local markets, visit a farm, and ask questions about brands sold at your most frequented shops. As for eggs, there are baskets of choice to choose from depending on your purchasing preferences and pocketbook.
While the benefits of various hen housing systems are debated by some, here’s a quick breakdown of your current egg options.
Organic—regulated by certifying agencies and the Canadian Food Inspection Agency to be raised using 100 percent organic feed. Hens have access to the outdoors for at least one-third of their life, weather permitting. Minimum space requirements, nest boxes, perches, and litter provisions must conform to animal health and welfare standards.
Free range—hens move freely in a barn and have access to the outdoors, weather permitting. Nest boxes are standard practice. They may also be given perches and litter.
Free run—hens have free run in a barn but not outdoors. Nest boxes are standard, and the chickens may be given perches and litter.
Furnished cage eggs—also known as “nestlaid” or “comfort coop eggs.” These hens have furnished cages that provide twice as much space, as well as access to nest areas and perches.
Omega-3—hens eat a diet supplemented with a source of omega-3 essential fatty acids (often flax). Unless otherwise labelled as from a cage-free system, these eggs are from caged hens.
Standard eggs—raised in cages without access to nest boxes, perches, or litter, under cramped conditions that prohibit natural behaviours.
Canada’s healthy eating guidelines are getting an overhaul that many say is long overdue. Intended to protect kids from marketing hype, to downgrade industry input, and to tackle weighty issues such as obesity and lack of exercise, this upgrade was announced last fall by Health Minister Jane Philpott. Consultations ended in December 2016, and it’s expected to take five to 10 years to implement the pending changes, which include new marketing rules and better nutrition labels.