Should You Eat REAL Certified Food?

Taking a trip to the grocery store these days can feel more like traveling to a foreign country than running an errand – you might need someone to translate the words and phrases on packages and food labels. Not only may you wonder what some ubiquitous terms like “all natural,” “free range” and “cage free” actually mean, but you now have a new label to decipher: “REAL.” This certification can be seen on food products and labels, in restaurants and on meal delivery services’ websites.

But what does this certification real-y mean? And does it mean that foods without it are, shall we venture to say, “fake?” Read on.

REAL stands for responsible, epicurean, agricultural and leadership. The certification was launched earlier this year by the United States Healthful Food Council, a nonprofit “dedicated to fighting diet-related disease by realigning the food industry’s incentives with consumers’ health interests,” according to the organization’s website.

The goal? To unite businesses across the U.S. that have met the standards to prove that they are committed to providing consumers with healthy food options, cutting down on fried and processed foods and sourcing sustainable ingredients from local and organic sources when possible.

To obtain this certification, food companies submit an application and undergo a voluntary process in which they “open up [their] establishment to be audited for health and sustainability best practice,” the USHFC website says. That means they talk to USHFC on the phone and then get a visit from a registered dietitian, who verifies that they practice what they preach.

Next, USHFC uses a points system to determine whether a food establishment is REAL. The system values seasonal and organic ingredients, healthy produce, plant-based oils, whole grains, healthy portion sizes and limited amounts of fried, sugar-laden and overly processed foods. The end goal here? To instill consumer trust in the sustainability and nutrition practices of these businesses.

How does this differ from other certifications? The U.S. Department of Agriculture’s organic certification (symbolized by that green and white circle) helps people choose products that are made with at least 95-percent organic ingredients when they are at the supermarket. REAL, on the other hand, certifies food products and restaurants at a more broad-scale level, focusing on nutrition and sustainable best practices.

Organic, local, grass-fed, cage-free and other terms can fall under the umbrella of REAL. However, REAL is more vague since the criteria aren’t clearly defined. Sure, a restaurant can have “less” sugar in its products, but what’s the threshold for “less?” The same goes for using plant-based oils – it has a nice ring to it, yet the amount of oil, level of refinement or even the definition of “plant-based” in this case is murky.

Still, the REAL certification may have true value, such as encouraging people to eat more fruits and vegetables, and to seek more fresh, seasonal, local and organic ingredients. It also may nudge people to use whole, beneficial fats and serve themselves smaller portion sizes, while discouraging consuming foods high in sugar and sodium. At a time when consumers are increasingly eating outside the home, this level of transparency is becoming more important.

But the REAL label doesn’t necessarily tell you much about how nutritious or not a food is. In other words, if you eat out or order in quite a bit, you still need to take into account the amount of added sugar, sodium, saturated fat, additives and fiber – information, which, to date, hasn’t been condensed into one food symbol you can rely on. Also keep in mind that some healthy, whole, minimally-processed foods – including frozen and canned fruits and vegetables – may not be certified as REAL, but shouldn’t be ruled out.

Ultimately, there’s still a lot to learn about what this certification actually means and how it translates to your health. But to the extent it highlights foods that are healthy and sustainable, it may be helpful to consumers. It could also help restaurateurs get food on their menus that tastes good and is good for you. And, as someone who’s worked with that population for years, I can tell you it’s an easy feat. Perhaps this is a step in the right direction.

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