How to Read and Understand Your Grocery Labels

For the most part, we all know we need to make healthier choices when it comes to eating. But grocery shopping means going through foods with all sorts of labels. Which ones are trustworthy? What do they all mean? Should you buy organic? Or natural? Is free range a better choice? What about antibiotics and hormones? All these labels can be confusing unless you know how to decipher them.

Recently, a company did a survey and the results indicated that about 80% of shoppers had trouble understanding food labels. About half said many times not being sure about the label influenced them to second guess decisions. Unclear labeling makes it difficult for consumers to know which foods are the better choices.

Things to Consider when Purchasing Food Products

Greenwashing is a term used for making products sound healthier than they are. It will require a bit of homework on your part know how to find the best products. Start by researching the companies online rather than figuring out labels while you are trying to shop. For example, if you purchase chicken often, then research the three most popular brands. Learn as much about them as you can, then purchase the best one when you shop. Here are a few points to consider:

  • The “USDA Organic” label is always green and white. This means the food has met the general criteria most people consider organic. You don’t have to research that, if the food label doesn’t have this label, it’s not been certified organic by the USDA.
  • Is the claim on the label verified? In other words, did the company have to meet certain criteria to make the claim? Does an independent organization provide oversight for the claims?
  • Avoid fluff words. For instance, words like “sustainable,” “all natural” or “good for the environment” don’t necessarily mean anything in particular.
  • When you can, purchase your food from local companies or farm markets. Then, you can ask questions directly to producers without worrying about label lingo.

Demystifying Food Labels

Here is a list of terms commonly used on food labels. It can help you know what you are really buying or enable you to make a more educated decision about the foods you buy.

  • USDA Organic is a label that means the US Department of Agriculture inspected and verified the food was grown without sewer sludge, pesticides or synthetic fertilizers. It guarantees the absence of genetically engineered or irradiated foods, animals were fed organic food and were not treated with antibiotics or hormones. It also certifies the animals could reach outdoor areas and none of them were clones.
  • Naturally raised or natural foods mean meat and poultry do not contain ingredients such as preservatives or artificial colors and flavors. Any ingredients are “minimally processed.” However, this label doesn’t indicate how animals are raised or if hormones or antibiotics were in use.
  • USDA inspected is a seal placed on foods that meet certain standards and have been inspected by the USDA to ensure the product meets high-quality standards. It doesn’t indicate anything about how animals are raised, or food is processed.
  • Treated with Radiation is indicated by an image of a green plant in a circle with “radura” printed on it. This is an international sign-on products that are irradiated.
  • Country of Origin is a federally required label providing information about where the food was produced.
  • Cage Free is often seen on eggs and it indicates the chickens were raised without being caged. It doesn’t explain anything else about their surroundings.
  • Grass Fed is a label that lets consumers know animals were fed grass or forage as a primary source of food instead of grains.
  • Pasture Raised means animals were allowed to spend some time in the pasture, but it doesn’t let you know how much time they spent in the pasture.
  • No antibiotics on a label indicate the animal didn’t receive any antibiotics during its lifetime, but it doesn’t let consumers know about any other treatments or hormones that may have been given.
  • No hormones are usually indicated with a label that says “raised without added hormones” or “no synthetic hormones” which means the animal didn’t get synthetic hormones during its lifetime. However, their use on poultry and pork products is prohibited.
  • Fresh on a label is usually only used to indicate a poultry product wasn’t cooled to below 26 degrees F. This is helpful for seafood products, but not for other products which do not have to bear a “frozen” label unless they are stored at zero degrees.