Understanding Food Labels

Use this guide to demystify food packaging claims and become a savvier shopper.

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In the grocery store, choose “USDA-Certified Organic,” the most tightly regulated organic label in the U.S.

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For those of us who love healthy food, few things feel more satisfying than buying directly from farmers who value quality products and environmental stewardship. For the last decade, I’ve worked around the world as an international development economist linking the farmers and consumers who share these values. In this role, I’ve researched and thought a lot about how food producers can best communicate their integrity to aligned consumers in a maze of shifting certifications and pricing. The more research I do, the less value I place on food labels as the best instrument for decision-making. Instead, I seek direct relationships with producers for authentic information about the health of my food, both for my body and the planet.

My hope is that one day soon, we will stop placing the burden of expensive certifications and regulatory hoops on the farmers and manufacturers who consistently produce the healthiest food and steward our natural resources. Rather, the producers using harmful chemicals and polluting our air and water will have to pay for expensive certifications to do that. Until this day comes, here are some tips to demystify labels and guide your health-conscious choices. 

Don’t let the packaging fool you.   

First things first: When you see packaging with multiple nutritional claims, this does not mean the food is healthy. In fact, a 2010 USDA study of package labels suggests that just the opposite is true: Aggressive nutritional marketing should give you reason to pause and dig deeper because it is most often used in less
nutritious food.

Many nutritional marketing terms have no regulatory oversight, such as “natural” and “made with real...” Unlike the FDA-regulated claims “sugar-free” and “low-calorie,” for example, the seemingly similar claim “lightly sweetened” has no legal definition. The presence of “multigrain” on a package means more than one grain was used, but they could all be highly processed and nutritionally void. Meanwhile “100 percent whole grain” indicates the presence of real, whole grains but does not guarantee that any of the other ingredients are good for you.

Frustratingly, even if a label is actually regulated, it still doesn’t mean the product is healthy. “Fat-free” foods are often full of empty calories and “light” products may be made almost entirely of fillers and artificial flavoring with no nutritional value. “Gluten-free,” an increasingly popular label, is also not indicative of health, unless of course you’re someone with a true gluten sensitivity or allergy. 

Organic is worth paying for, but not all organic foods are created equal.

In spite of recent conflicting reports about the value of organics, organic foods are still worth paying for. Food grown in healthier soil and without synthetic chemicals is more nutritious and lower in harmful toxins (learn more about eating organic foods here). With the rise in demand for organic products, however, organic farming practices increasingly resemble large-scale monoculture operations. Many industrial organic farming operations do not apply the fundamental organic practices of crop rotation, cover cropping, building soil with compost, and maintaining biological diversity. Instead, they follow the list of USDA organic certification prohibitions, which prevent the use of synthetic pesticides, bioengineered genes and petroleum- or sewage sludge-based fertilizers. Fruits and vegetables grown on these industrial organic farms have fewer harmful toxins than their conventional brethren, but they are not likely to have more nutrition because the soil they come from doesn’t have more nutrition.

Aim for whole foods and few ingredients.

When buying packaged foods, ingredient lists are one of your best tools for reading between the lines of health claims. If a package claims “high in fiber,” for example, but three of the top five ingredients are various forms of sugar, it’s probably not your healthiest option. Or a food product might be labeled “USDA Organic,” but you see in the ingredient list that it contains mostly refined ingredients and the product is filled with binders and preservatives. Regardless of the organic label, this is junk food.

Egg claims are mostly unreliable.

When it comes to eggs, many claims evoke images of chickens roaming bucolic fields with red barns—“free-range,” “all-natural,” and “hormone-free,” for example. Unfortunately, these labels are unregulated or misleading. If a carton makes those claims, there’s a great chance the eggs are NOT a truly pastured product high in heart-healthy omega-3 fatty acids and other important nutrients. If the carton says the eggs are “USDA Organic,” “certified humane” or, to a lesser extent, “cage-free,” you can trust that these labels are meaningful in some ways, but they still don’t guarantee the most essential necessity for high-quality eggs—that the hens had ample access to the outdoors. The best way to get nutritious eggs is to buy them locally from someone raising hens that graze on pastures, or raise your own hens.

The grass actually is greener.

Meat and dairy products from pastured animals are the healthiest option. Meat from animals allowed to eat their natural grass-based diet has two to four times as much healthy omega-3 fatty acid content as meat from grain-fed animals, plus significantly fewer calories and a healthy supply of vitamins A, D, E and beta-carotene. “USDA Organic” meat certifies the absence of hormones and antibiotics, and, like eggs, some access to the outdoors, but not that it was pasture-raised. The USDA recently revoked its grass-fed label. For the most nutritious meat, you’ll need to buy directly from farmers who can tell you that they exclusively pasture their animals and use no added hormones or antibiotics, or from a grocer whose claims you can trust.

Get to know your food producers.

This doesn’t only mean shopping at your local farmers market. It also means the companies from which you regularly buy cereal and chocolate bars. Most companies have websites and social media accounts that can help provide insight into their values. You can also learn a lot from news searches. Are these companies getting recognition for good practices? Are they being sued for violations or called out for misleading advertising claims? Learning about your staple food brands can take a little work on the front end, but it is a great way to trust that your food dollars are being well spent. Here is a guide to trustworthy food manufacturers.

To get the most bang for your organic buck, follow these tips:

• When buying fruits and vegetables, seek out smaller organic farms and locally grown produce. Smaller farms are more likely to practice the core principles of organic farming. If the farms are local, there’s a greater likelihood that you can ask your grocer or the producers themselves about farming practices (some small farms that practice organic methods can’t afford the expense of certification—in that case, your best bet is to ask them directly).

• In the grocery store, look for the USDA organic label. Despite complaints of recent watering down of USDA certification requirements, this label is still the most tightly regulated of the organic claims in the United States.

• If food dollars are tight, consider focusing your organic purchases on raw produce and the dirty dozen. These 12 fruits and vegetables typically carry the highest pesticide load when grown conventionally: apples, peaches, nectarines, strawberries, grapes, celery, spinach, bell peppers, cucumbers, cherry tomatoes, snap peas, potatoes, hot peppers and kale. 

• Note that all USDA-certified 100 percent organic foods are GMO-free, so there is no need to look for a product with non-GMO labeling.

Look for ingredient lists with these 5 characteristics:

• Few ingredients

• Whole, unrefined, real food ingredients

• Words you understand—if you don’t know what an ingredient is, there’s a good chance it’s a preservative, additive, binder or sweetener

• Low sugar content—get to know the many synonyms food marketers use for sugar, among them: agave, brown rice syrup, corn syrup, dehydrated cane juice, fruit juice concentrates, lactose, malt syrup, maltodextrin, saccharin and sucrose

• No partially or fully hydrogenated oils (unhealthy trans fats in disguise)