Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity


1. Organic Foods

What does the label “organic” mean? How can people tell what is 100 percent organic? What are these non-organic ingredients?

Organic foods are grown without the use of most conventional pesticides, ionizing radiation, or bioengineering. Meat and poultry products may be considered organic if the animals are raised without the use of antibiotics or growth hormones.

The United States Department of Agriculture defines what it means to grow “organic” foods and certifies farms that claim to grow organically produced crops. The easiest way to identify foods with organic ingredients is to look for the USDA organic seal that many companies place on their food packages. However, it is important to note that the USDA maintains various standards for labeling foods as organic. If a food is made with 100 percent organic ingredients, it can be labeled as such (100 percent Organic Cereal). If a food contains at least 95 percent organic ingredients, it may be called simply “organic” (Organic Cereal). If a product contains at least 70 percent organic ingredients, it may list the ingredients on the front panel of the package, but it may not make any organic claims.

2. USDA Regulation

What does the USDA approve with respect to food? How can we know that what we are buying is what the label says it is?

Actually, the Food and Drug Administration, not the USDA, is the government agency that keeps the closest eye on food production and the food industry. The FDA approves the use of many of the claims companies make about their foods on packages, from nutrient content claims to health claims. The FDA also maintains the Generally Recognized as Safe list, which documents food ingredients and additives that are generally recognized as safe.

3. Beverages

The Rudd Center's Sugary Drink FACTS report quantifies the nutritional quality of sugar-sweetened beverages marketed to children.

Some soft drink companies are creating sodas fortified with vitamins and minerals. Are these drinks as healthy as they suggest? Are they good substitutes for soda?

An amazing array of fortified beverages hits the market every year. Most of these are sports drinks or energy drinks, but fortified soft drinks are being added to the mix as well. Beverage companies hope that consumers will see these “value-added” products as providing something more than refreshment, such as increased energy or a boost in nutrients. In reality, however, most of these beverages do very little of either. The nutrients commonly found in these beverages, such as B vitamins, are not in short supply in the American diet, and there is little evidence to suggest that the drinks actually enhance one’s energy level. More than anything else, the onslaught of vitamin- and mineral-fortified sodas is part of a marketing scheme meant to sell more products.

Are energy drinks like Red Bull, PowerAde, and Gatorade healthful? How do they compare to water? How do they compare to juice?

Two of the most active sectors of the beverage market are sports drinks and energy drinks. Sports drinks, like Gatorade, usually contain electrolytes and some quantity of carbohydrate as sugar (often formulated for quick absorption). When invented years ago, these beverages were intended only for serious athletes, to protect them from dehydration or energy depletion. Sports drinks still serve a useful function for carbohydrate or electrolyte replenishment. But people who are not involved in extended bouts of activity have no need for these beverages and should not view them as healthy. The truth is, during times of inactivity, sports drinks are no healthier than soda.

Energy drinks are marketed with a different tack: claims that they provide the consumer with a boost in energy. In fact, the vast majority of ingredients in these drinks do little to provide stamina; instead, the products often are as caffeinated as coffee, and that’s where the “boost” comes from.

Is juice healthful?

Juice is a beverage category that takes a little extra thought. 100 percent juice can count as a serving of fruit (and these days, vegetables). But because juice often contains more calories per gram than the fruit or vegetables from which it came, it is better for your health to consume the “original” than the juice version.

Should I drink vitamin water?

Vitamin waters most often contain B vitamins. Americans are rarely deficient in most B vitamins, so there is not much need for them in beverages. It won’t do you any harm to drink them, but you might as well be drinking regular water…it’s free from the tap!

Milk? What percent? How much a day? What about soy milk? Lactose intolerance?

Milk is an excellent beverage choice, particularly because it can be an important source of calcium and vitamin D, which can be otherwise difficult to find. If you do not suffer from lactose intolerance, choose non-fat (skim) milk rather than 1 percent, 2 percent, or whole milk. Soy milk is an excellent surrogate if you are vegan or lactose intolerant.

4. Food Labels

How can I tell if a health claim is legit? How can I assess whether a packaged food is really healthy?

A health claim on a food package relates some component or nutrient within a food to a disease or condition. For instance, some health claims relate consumption of whole grains to reduced risk for heart disease, or lower sodium to reduced risk for hypertension. Health claims are regulated by the FDA and are based on strong evidence and widespread agreement among scientists that the relationship between the food and the disease or condition is real. Thus, health claims in general can be considered legitimate.

It’s important to be wary, however, of other claims you might find on food packages. Sometimes, you’ll see a small asterisks after a claim which notes the FDA has not approved the claim. In this case, the claim is not well-substantiated by science and its validity is questionable.

When it comes to determining whether a packaged food is actually healthy, things get tricky. The best way to go about this is to consider four pieces of information provided to you in the Nutrition Facts panel. First, look to see whether the product contains any trans fats. If so, put it down. Then consider levels of saturated fats, sodium, and added sugars. If the food is healthful, then all three of those ingredients will be relatively low in quantity, if not absent entirely. If you’re not sure what “low” means, look for comparison products and start to get an idea of how much of these various nutrients you find in similar products.

As for calories, the lower the amounts of the four nutrients noted above, the “healthier” the calories you’ll be consuming, whatever the amount. In many cases, foods that are low in these four nutrients are likely to be low in calories.

5. Trans Fats

What is a trans fat? What does it do in your body? Why does the food industry use it if it’s so bad for you, and why does the industry fight banning trans fats? Is trans fat just the new “bad food of the week”?

Trans fats are (for the most part) manmade fats used in food products to alter texture and extend shelf life. They are made by bubbling hydrogen through oil, hence the alternative term “partially hydrogenated oil.” Trans fats are unhealthy through and through: They contribute to rising cholesterol levels, in particular LDL or bad cholesterol.

Restaurants and food companies prefer to cook with trans fats because they extend the shelf life of products and help achieve the desired texture for foods like baked goods. Although our understanding of how trans fats damage health is recent, these fats should not be dismissed by anyone as the “bad food du jour.” Many food companies are changing their products to remove or reduce trans fats.

6. Farm Bill

What is the farm bill? What significance does it have for what I eat?

The Farm Bill is the United States government’s primary agricultural and food policy tool. It is a comprehensive piece of legislation that authorizes a variety of food assistance programs along with an array of farm and environmental policies.  It is renewed every five years or so. In its current form, the Farm Bill includes a subsidy program that pays farmers to grow certain crops, such as corn. Many scientists and health experts contend that making corn cheaper to grow drives up the production of high-fructose corn syrup (HFCS), which is a sweetener derived from corn. Similarly, corn-based feed for cattle also becomes cheaper. In this way, the government is by extension subsidizing the production of meat (a principal source of saturated fat in Americans’ diets) and junk foods sweetened with HFCS through the Farm Bill. For these reasons, many people are calling for changes in the Farm Bill that would support the production of healthier foods for Americans.