Is going to the grocery store a dreaded chore? Does it send you into a state of panic at the realization you actually don’t know what to eat? Do all the food product labels make you dizzy with confusion? I get it. It’s a jungle out there! And I want to help you navigate it with grace and ease. By understanding front-of-package marketing labels, you’ll be armed against getting duped into buying processed foods with undesirable ingredients just because a “health halo” trips you up.

It’s pretty safe to say you should always be skeptical of health claims on food packages. If the package has to convince you of the healthfulness of the product, there’s a high likelihood the contents are really not so good. Research shows that the average consumer makes most of his food-related decisions on mindless auto-pilot and that people are less likely to check the Nutrition Facts Label on the back of the package when alluring front-of-package labelling exists. People think foods with front-of-package health claims (“rich in Omega-3,” “supports immunity” etc.) have fewer calories and are better for their health and, in turn, they eat more of them. This phenomenon is known as the “health halo effect” and it does a great job of selling food products, regardless of how poorly the health claim is supported by science.

Now that we know how easy it is to get sucked into this food marketing machine, let’s go through the most misleading and most useful terms among commonly used front-of-package claims.Just so you know — in America, most food labels are regulated by the FDA or the USDA. The FDA handles produce and packaged foods, while the USDA regulates animal-related products (dairy, meat, eggs) and organic food production (plants and animals).

Produce and Packaged Food Labels

Organic – This term means that irradiation, sewage sludge, synthetic fertilizers, prohibited pesticides and genetically modified organisms cannot be used on crops that bear the “USDA Organic” seal. (N.B. Organic does not address nutrition so just because a food product is organic doesn’t mean it’s good for you.)Natural – This term and it’s variants (“all-natural”) are meaningless when it comes to produce and packaged food. “Natural” is not regulated by the FDA, so you need to inspect the packaged product’s ingredients to ensure it supports good health.Fat-Free, Low-Fat, Reduced-Fat – Fat-free foods must have less than .5 grams of fat per serving; low-fat foods cannot have more than 3 grams of fat per serving; reduced-fat foods must have at least 25% less fat than regular versions of those foods. Just because a food is low fat or reduced fat does not mean it’s free of calories. Often, manufacturers take out the fat and replace it with sugar! Some fat-free products can actually be higher in calories than their full-fat counterpart because sugar and refined grains are added to the products to make up for lack of taste. Do yourself a favor and avoid any of these foods – instead, eat full fat products! They are “whole foods” so you’ll notice they are much more filling/satisfying and you’ll naturally eat less of them.Gluten Free – This term means that the product has a gluten limit of less than 20 parts per million. As you probably know, gluten free has been launched into the health food stratosphere in terms of trendiness. Now everyone wants to slap the gluten free label on their product because people equate “gluten free” with healthy. This is not always the case — many gluten free packaged foods, i.e. cookies and breads, are full of sugar, refined starch, and other additives and preservatives so check the ingredients list before assuming the product is a health food.

Livestock and Poultry Labels

Organic – This USDA-regulated seal verifies that producers have “met animal health and welfare standards (e.g. letting animals graze on pasture), did not use antibiotics or growth hormones, used 100% organic feed, and provided animals with access to the outdoors” (USDA 2012).Natural – This term means that animal products must be minimally processed and contain no artificial ingredients. “Naturally raised” indicates that livestock used for meat have been raised entirely without growth hormones and antibiotics and have never been fed animal byproducts. It does not address animal welfare or the use of eco-friendly farming practices.

Grass-Fed – This is a USDA-regulated term which refers to ruminant animals (cattle, sheep) that were only ever fed mother’s milk and forage (grazed or stored hay, grass or other greens). The animals must have had access to pasture during the growing season. The label does not indicate any limitations on the use of antibiotics, hormones or pesticides, nor does it indicate year-round access to pasture. While “grass-fed” is a USDA-regulated term, “grass-finished” and “green-fed” are not.

Free-Range – This is a USDA-regulated term which only refers to poultry. It indicates that a poultry flock was provided shelter and unlimited access to food, fresh water and access to the outdoors during the production cycle. While the birds have access to the outdoors, we don’t know the quality or size of the outdoor area and duration of outdoor access. Note that “free-roaming” is not a regulated term.Cage-Free – This term indicates that a flock of birds could freely roam in an indoor or enclosed area with unlimited access to food and fresh water during the production cycle. This term doesn’t tell us whether or not the birds had any outdoor access, if the outdoor access included pasture or simply a bare lot, or if they they were raised in overcrowded conditions.No Antibiotics Added – This USDA-regulated term may be used on labels for meat or poultry products if the producer provides sufficient supporting documentation. “Antibiotic free” has no regulatory definition.No Added Hormones – This is a funny one because it’s totally redundant in referring to poultry and pork. The USDA prohibits use of hormones in the raising of any hogs, poultry or goats. This label must be accompanied by the words “Federal regulations prohibit the use of hormones.”No Hormones Administered – This USDA-regulated term refers to beef and dairy products. The terms “hormone-free” and “no hormones” are not permitted on the labels of beef, pork or poultry products as the animal proteins contain naturally occurring hormones regardless of production methods.If you shop at Whole Foods, they make it easy for you with their 5-Step Animal Welfare Rating program which outlines specific husbandry and management practices that promote farm-animal welfare. It starts with Step-1 (orange) and goes through Step-5+ (green plus). Even though Step-1 is the lowest, and therefore the least “animal-centered,” it is still a departure from conventional animal agriculture practices (i.e. the scary stuff they show on PETA videos). If you go to the meat section of the store, you will see the color-coded rating system on the meat and poultry they are selling. If you want to know more about each Step, Whole Foods’ meat department has a free Animal Welfare booklet that they are happy to hand out.

Seafood Labels

The U.S. had no organic standards for aquaculture (seafood). There are, however, third party certification bodies such as the Marine Stewardship Council, which is the world’s leading certification body for sustainable wild-caught seafood. There are also seafood watch programs, such as Monterey Bay Aquarium’s, which ranks wild-caught seafood as “Best,” “Good” or “Avoid.” Whole Foods has a third party verification system in place for their farmed seafood to ensure it has no antibiotics, added growth hormones, preservatives or by-products in feed.

Key Take Aways

  1. Beware of the Hype – Sometimes it’s the least healthy products that have the most nutrition claims on the front of the package.
  2. Read the back – Read the Nutrition Facts panel and ingredients list on the back of the package and ignore the nutritional claims on the front.
  3. Eat whole foods – Seek out produce instead of products and you won’t have to worry about falling prey to the food marketing machine!
  4. Go organic – For produce and packaged foods, organic guarantees that these products are non-GMO and not sprayed with pesticides. For meat, poultry and dairy, you can rest assured the animals weren’t given antibiotics or hormones.
  5. Grass Fed and Free Range – Beyond organic, you can go for grass fed beef / buffalo and free range poultry and eggs.
  6. Sustainable and Wild Caught Seafood – I recommend buying wild-caught seafood as much as possible, but I trust that Whole Foods has high standards for their farmed-raised fish. Download a sustainable seafood guide from www.seafoodwatch.org and bring with you when you shop.

I know that was a lot, so thanks for hanging in there with me! For those of us who care about our health, my advice is to eat real food and minimize packaged products with health claims on them. When you are at the grocery store, do the majority of your shopping around the perimeter of the store, loading up your cart with lots of fresh produce and quality meat and seafood. Another tip is to not shop when you’re hungry! Being hungry can lead to many more mindless auto-pilot decisions and impulse purchases. Bring a list and stick to it as much as possible, ignoring all the food marketing jumping off the shelves. Check out this post for more tips and tricks!

Good luck out there! If you ever need my help with making your grocery shopping trip less of a nightmare, please feel free to reach out.