A Look Into Food Labels

  • Hannah Aylward
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Eat More Consciously by Deciphering Food Label Claims

By Hannah Aylward


Grocery store aisles are lined with products showcasing multiple claims like all natural, organic, and cage-free. What do these even mean?How does a person know what are the best options when it comes health since many food labels are confusing.


I have clients ask me all the time, "What is best?"


I’ll start with this, whenever you can, choose organic, whether it is animal products, veggies, fruits, nuts, grains, etc. Organic is always best if possible. With that in mind, make sure to stay up to date on the latest Dirty Dozen and Clean Fifteen lists. These lists will help you identify what is most important to source organic, and what conventionally grown optionsyou could get away with buying. If you forget the list when you are shopping, think of it like this: anything with a thick peel (avocados, bananas, oranges) are typically okay to buy conventionally. That thick peel, that you don’t consume, helps protect that juicy, delicious inside from pesticides.

Another quick note: if it comes in a box and is covered in “healthy claims”, you probably don’t want it. Think about it, broccoli doesn’t come in a box, and it typically doesn’t have “all-natural” stamped on the front of it. This is because it is a healthy, whole food in its natural state. Of course, it’s all-natural!


Here is a breakdown of common label claims to empower you during your next shopping trip.



“Antibiotic-free” means an animal was not given any antibiotics during its lifetime. Other phrases to indicate the same thing include “no antibiotics administered” and “raised without antibiotics.” This is good, and very important. If an animal has been injected with hormones, and then we consume that animal or any of its byproducts, we ingest those hormones as well. Not good.



“Cage-free” means the birds were raised out of cages. This is a good start, but unfortunately not enough. What this doesn’t identify is whether the birds were raised outdoors on pasture or indoors in overcrowded conditions. If you eat eggs, poultry, or meat, look for “pastured” or “pasture-raised.”



“Pasture-raised” indicates the animal was raised on a pasture where it was able to eat nutritious grass and other plants, rather than being fattened on grain. Pasturing livestock and poultry is a traditional farming technique that allows animals to be raised in a humane manner. Animals are able to move freely and behave naturally. This is best for your health and the environment.



The “fair trade” label means farmers and workers have received fair wages and work in acceptable conditions. This is obviously a plus. However, it really doesn’t affect what is in the product itself. Fair-trade gummy bears are still not healthy!



“Free-range” on egg and poultry labels are only defined by the USDA. These labels can be used as long as the producers allow the birds some access to the outdoors. This amount of time can be minimal. This does not mean the products are cruelty-free or antibiotic-free.



Animals raised on a grain diet are labeled “grain-fed.” While this appears healthy on a container, this is typically not a good thing. Most of these animals that are grain- or vegetarian-fed are being fed large amounts of corn and wheat, which fattens them up to the manufacturer’s benefit. However, most of these animals don’t naturally eat this way.



This means animals were fed grass, their natural diet, rather than grains. Grass-fed meat is more humane, and lower in fat and calories than grain-fed meat. Some grass-fed cattle are “grain-finished”, which means they ate grain from a feedlot prior to slaughter. It is important to look for “grass-fed” and “grass-finished.”



This identifies animals that were raised without added growth hormones. Hogs and poultry cannot be given any hormones by law.



Foods labeled “healthy” have to be low in saturated fat (which isn’t necessarily a good thing) and contain limited amounts of cholesterol and sodium. Certain foods must also contain at least 10% of the following nutrients: Vitamin A or C, iron, calcium, protein, or fiber. Unfortunately, this doesn’t really mean anything. Don’t let it fool you! Look at the ingredients list. If you can’t pronounce it, don’t eat it.



GMOs, genetically modified organisms, are plants or animals that have been genetically engineered with DNA from bacteria, viruses, or other plants and animals. There is a lot of controversy out there about whether GMOs are harmful or not. I recommend doing your research. However, over 80% of genetically modified crops grown worldwide are engineered to tolerate being sprayed with glyphosate herbicides. So when consuming GMOs, you not only get an unnaturally grown crop, but it is also likely covered in chemicals. Products are labeled “GMO-free” if they’re produced without GMOs. Assume that all corn and soy contain GMOs unless they are labeled GMO-free, as they are two of the most common GMO crops.



Ah this is one of the biggest misconceptions. This is a marketing term first and foremost. Currently, no standards exist for this label except when used on meat and poultry products. USDA guidelines state that “natural” meat and poultry products can only undergo minimal processing and can’t contain artificial colors or flavors, preservatives, or other artificial ingredients. Why would chicken ever contain artificial colors? “Natural” foods aren’t necessarily sustainable, organic, humanely raised, or free of hormones and antibiotics. “Natural” products can still contain huge amounts of sugar and other inflammatory foods not optimal for overall health.



All organic agricultural farms and products must meet the following guidelines (verified by a USDA-approved independent agency):

• Abstain from the application of prohibited materials (including synthetic fertilizers, pesticides, and sewage sludge) for three years prior to certification and then continually throughout their organic license.

• Prohibit the use of GMOs and irradiation.

• Employ positive soil building, conservation, manure management, and crop rotation practices.

• Provide outdoor access and pasture for livestock.

• Refrain from antibiotic and hormone use in animals.

• Sustain animals on 100% organic feed.

• Avoid contamination during the processing of organic products.

• Keep records of all operations.

If a product contains the “USDA Organic” seal, it means that 95-100% of its ingredients are organic. Products with 70-95% organic ingredients can still advertise “organic ingredients” on the front of the package. Products with less than 70% organic ingredients cannot be labeled organic, but can identify the organic ingredients on the side panel.

As you can see, becoming “certified organic” is a very extensive and expensive process. A lot of local, small, family-run farms can’t swing it. However, that doesn’t mean that they aren’t providing a high-quality product. Go to your local farmer’s market and get to know your local farmers. You can ask them questions about their practices, so you really know what you are getting. Developing a good relationship with your local farmers and distributors is the best way to go.



Recombinant bovine growth hormone (rBGH), or recombinant bovine somatotropin (rBST), is a genetically-engineered growth hormone that’s injected into dairy cows to increase their milk production. This is completely unnatural. The hormone hasn’t been properly tested for safety. Its use is not permitted in the European Union, Canada, and a few other countries. Milk labeled “rBGH-Free” is produced by dairy cows that never received injections of this hormone. Organic milk is rBGH free. If milk is not labeled ‘rBGH-Free”, assume that it is. Always buys organic and/or rBGH-Free dairy products.


Overall Source: http://www.sustainabletable.org/

Hannah Aylward

Hannah Aylward is a Certified Health Coach, nutrition consultant, fitness instructor, healthy living expert, and founder of HAN. She helps both men and women around the world lose weight, heal skin disturbances, balance hormones, heal gut imbalances and feel at home in their bodies through healthy eating, movement, mindfulness and positive self-talk. Her goal is to help others “learn the tools that they need to live the lives they deserve”. Get to know her by visiting her website and following her on Instagram, Facebook and Twitter.

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Photo by Dane Deaner & Photo by Caroline Attwood & Photo by Marcio Motta on Unsplash