Understanding Food Labels

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

  • grocery bag
    In the grocery store, choose “USDA-Certified Organic,” the most tightly regulated organic label in the U.S.
    Photo by iStock
  • woman looking at eggs
    Eggs often come with a variety of labels, and most of them are unregulated.
    Photo by iStock
  • woman shopping for produce
    Conscious shopping means understanding labels, and catching terms meant to throw shoppers off.
    Photo by iStock

  • grocery bag
  • woman looking at eggs
  • woman shopping for produce

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.

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