How to Understand Food Labels

Take the mystery and frustration out of grocery shopping when you learn how to understand food labels.
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Reading food labels these days can require a Master’s in communication! In Grandma’s time she could easily buy groceries with one or two ingredients, have them packaged in front of her eyes and walk out the store. Today, you must stand there in the aisle, analyzing every word. So that’s why I want to share with you how to understand food labels.

8 Food Labels You Should Understand

Some food labels are simply a marketing ploy to get you to buy. Others actually hold a little weight to their pretty sticker. Make sure you understand what food labels mean before you go spending double the money on them.

Do not purchase a product because a pretty label makes you think it’s healthier for you. Read ingredients. Understand how it was raised and processed.

This list is by no means all-inclusive, it’s simply the labels that I see most swaying my purchasing decisions.

Natural

Arsenic is natural.

It was also a widely used food pesticide starting in the late 1800s.

There is nothing about this term that is regulated by any organization or the government. As long as some part of the food packaged inside is natural, it could sport this label.

“Natural” can trigger you to flip over the package and read the ingredients. But keep in mind that processing procedures aren’t necessarily labeled. Processes such as irradiation, pasteurization, bleaching and many others may not be labeled but could alter the integrity of the food.

Organic

Many people buy organic food because they want to lessen their consumption of chemicals. I get that.

All “organic” means is that there are less chemicals used to grow the food. And really, the USDA and others who set the “organic” guidelines, still allow a certain percentage of artificial ingredients . The main goal of “organic” is to alter the ecosystem less drastically than it’s conventional counterpart.

Keep in mind, “organic” does not mean small farm, eco-friendly, humane, or employee-friendly. It is simply a label for substances that can or cannot be used in producing a product.

Read here to learn why I don’t always buy organic food.

Cage Free Eggs

This term is not regulated by the government, but it seems you can generally believe that the chicken has a larger place to roam around than the usual space of a sheet of paper.

The bird is still stuck inside usually with no access to the outdoors.

By the way, eggs are one of the healthiest convenience foods you should keep on hand at all times for quick, nourishing snacks!

Antibiotic Free

Farmer’s are required to withhold milk and meat from the market for so many days to allow an antibiotic to pass through them. There is testing in place and severe penalties if antibiotics are found in the farmer’s animal or milk.

So the product has to test antibiotic-free before entering the food processing line.

GMO Free

This label is just fine to have on your food packages and doesn’t conceal anything to look out for. Just don’t go buying a product just because it has this label.

For instance, the wheat berries I buy say “GMO Free.” The oatmeal I buy proudly boasts “Non-GMO!” Great!

But wait a minute… there is no GMO wheat approved for sale anywhere. Like, anywhere in the world. Oh, and there are not genetically modified oats on the market. Anywhere.

So like I said, don’t buy food just for that label. Use a bit of critical thinking to understand when to give this label your extra hard-earned money.

Sugar Free

Everyone is trying to lessen their sugar intake, right? But the label “sugar free” on a normally sweet food item should turn you away. If it’s sugar free, it is usually packed with artificial sweeteners that can wreak more havoc on your body than if you were to just eat a tablespoon of sugar.

Even if the food is naturally sweetened but “sugar free,” still be leery. Food companies can mix in some artificial sweeteners with the natural ones and call it good.

Also, don’t forget about the biological effects of eating something that tastes sweet buy doesn’t have sugar. It triggers your brain and body to get ready by releasing insulin and preparing for it’s arrival. But when no sugar arrives, all that preparing your body did was for nought. This false alarm has now created a craving.

Fat Free

First off, our bodies and brains need fat. Healthy fats.

If you are confused about fats, head over to the Weston Price Foundation for some solid answers.

In short, less or no fat in a product means it has a lot more sugar and salt to make it palatable.

Grass Fed

The Department of Agriculture no longer holds a legal definition of the term so it can get pretty loose as to who can slap “Grass Fed” on a label.

I worked on a beef ranch for a summer in Colorado. We raised cattle on the range and they grazed 100% from the time they weaned to the time they got shipped off to the finishing yards.

At the finishing yards, the cattle were finished on grain before meeting weight requirements for harvesting. Because those cattle were grass-fed at some point in their life, that meat was marketed as “grass fed.”

If you are truly concerned about grain in your animal’s diet before consumption, look for “100% grass fed” before dropping a pretty penny. Or contact a local farmer who can explain first hand how your animal was raised.

Take the mystery and frustration out of grocery shopping when you learn how to understand food labels.

3 Ways You Can Take the Guessing Out of How to Read Food Labels

Take more responsibility for your food. The first step is shopping based on what’s right in front of you. Not everyone can go to a farmer’s market, buy from a neighbor or have a garden with some backyard chickens.

Start where you are with what you have like learning the basics of identifying nutritious food.

Ideally, you would make everything you can from scratch and learn how to make your homemade food taste delicious. But that’s not always possible.

1. Buy Whole

Choose the whole watermelon rather than the pre-cut watermelon that requires extra plastic packaging and more refrigeration. Buy the whole carrots and make them into carrot sticks at home.

Get the whole chicken rather than the pretty package of uniform breasts or thighs. A whole chicken means that that whole bird was healthy. Pieced chicken means that the thigh was good, but the rest of the bird was beat up pretty bad so it got tossed. Or the wing had a growth on it so the bird has to get pieced.

Buy the whole potatoes instead of hash browns or boxed mashed potatoes. Buy the whole egg rather than cartons of pourable eggs.

Buying whole means less processing, less packaging and more control over the ingredients and how you prepare food for your family.

2. Buy from Your Neighbor

If possible, buy from your neighbor and friends. Not only is it a great way to meet new people, but you are supporting a small business. I go up the road and buy my chickens from my neighbor. Nope, they aren’t organic. But I know that they get fed garden scraps and get lots sunshine. I look in the eyes of the people who butchered my chickens and who I directly support with my money.

I’d also rather buy apples and peaches from my other neighbor who has to spray for pests. His produce was gathered by him and his family and a few employees. I bring my own containers to put the fruit in. No semis or ships or gassing was needed to make sure I got delicious food that was “fresh.”

3. Read Ingredients

Rather than purchasing off of the front label claims, flip over the package and read what is actually put into the food.

Yes, take time to do a little research at home so you know what you want to avoid and what you are willing to compromise on. It takes a little time to learn, but once you discover what brands you trust ingredients of, you can shop more quickly next time.

Be that weirdo and snap a picture of the ingredient list so you can go home and look up each item so you know what to buy next time.

For example, a lot of breakfast sausage has MSG in it. I prefer to avoid that ingredient for my family, so I have narrowed down what grocery store I have to shop at because my main grocery store has all MSG breakfast sausage.


Learning how to understand food labels can seem daunting, but it is so worth your time. Taking control over what you feed your family is just one way you can show them you love them.

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