When it comes to food labels, what you see is not always what you get. You are much better off skipping processed foods altogether and creating a diet made completely of unprocessed foods. But in the real world we often have to choose convenience and hope that the cover of the cereal box isn’t lying to us about eating well. Sometimes it is hard to discern what is truly helpful and what is just a marketing ploy. So…
Let’s go over the basic labels:
Certified Organic: This tells us that the food is produced without pesticides or chemical additives. The USDA requires that the food producers have tested factors like soil quality, pesticides and animal-raising practices in their process. 100% certified organic ensures that the food has been following the guidelines.
Made with Organic Ingredients: This means that the product can be made with only 70 percent organic ingredients. You have to be careful about what else has been added to make up the food. It could be 30 percent toxic.
Non-GMO: This food is required to ensure that it’s free of all genetically modified ingredients.
This is an important label in processed foods to ensure that only whole foods were used in the manufacturing.
Natural: All this means is that in the process of making this food, some natural ingredients were used. Often the “Natural” ingredient is sugar. Beware.
Grass Fed: The FDA says that an animal can be called USDA grass-fed as long as it’s fed some sort of grass during its lifetime. That means it could be fed any number of other things along the way.
Whole Grain: This labels ensures that the product was made with more fiber and essential nutrients. Usually a best bet.
Multigrain: This means that there is more than one type of grain in the product. These are most likely refined grains, usually the empty calorie types with little health benefits.
Light: These products are highly processed foods. They may contain reduced calories or fat, but often they are just watered down foods we shouldn’t be eating anyway.
Low-fat: This usually means the fat has been removed and sugar or salt has been added to make up the difference of lost flavor.
Zero trans-fat: This means that the product contains less than 0.5 grams of trans fat per serving. Food labels seem to be the only places where fractions equal zero.
Low-carb: Unless it’s pure protein then, really, what is it you are actually eating instead of the carbs? Usually nothing good for you.
No Added Sugar: Some foods are naturally high in sugar. That doesn’t mean it’s healthy. This may also mean that artificial sweeteners have been used to make up the difference.
Gluten-free: These products don’t contain wheat, spelt, rye or barley. This is very beneficial to a lot of diets since it eliminates the white flours and other fillers that naturally fill processed foods. But be careful of this label- a gluten free donut is still a donut, highly processed and loaded with fats and sugar.
Fair Trade: This doesn’t say anything about the actual food, but ensures that workers were paid above minimum wage and that safe work environments were involved. Again, this doesn’t matter if the food is a donut.
The best rule of thumb is to ignore what is said on the front of the package and read the ingredients label on the back of the package. Here, the product ingredients are listed by quantity, from highest to lowest amount. This will tell you what the product is mostly made from. If it looks like a scroll, that means you should stop reading and put the product down- nothing here that’s good.
Also be sure to note that the serving size is usually reduced to a ridiculous number to try to hide the calorie content. Who eats a quarter of a donut? Really, skip the donuts altogether.