Labels 101: Reading and Understanding Food Labels

Labels 101: Reading and Understanding Food Labels

January 29, 2023

By Healthy Child Staff

Heading to the grocery store? Don’t forget your glasses. There’s a lot of label reading to be done. Sadly your glasses can’t help you figure out which product label and packaging marketing claims are legit, and which are not. From so-called natural pasture-raised chicken to sustainable dolphin-friendly tuna, it’s a jungle out there. Still, decoding food labels doesn’t require a PhD … though it sometimes can feel like it should.

The only food label logo that is both strictly defined and regulated by the government and requires third party certification is USDA organic. Though even there there are shades of organic-ness and categories for labeling As mentioned, some organic products may only contain 70 percent organic ingredients. If you want 100 percent, look for it.

Beyond USDA organic, the first thing any shopper needs to know is that most terms found on food product packaging have no legal definition or regulation. That bears repeating, especially when it comes to the word “natural.” Anyone can stick it on a product. Beyond “natural,” phrases like “free- range,” “fair trade,” and “environmentally-friendly” can largely mean anything manufacturers want them to mean.

There are exceptions. The most helpful for conscious consumers are terms and logos representing defined standards and certifications maintained by third parties, like Animal Welfare Approved or Certified Humane Raised and Handled—both found on animal product labels. To find out how meaningful any claim is, check out Consumer Reports’ excellent eco-label guide.

When shopping, ferret out frauds by checking a label’s claims against its ingredients panel. Use your instincts. Does that “natural” labeled soup contain unpronounceable additives, chemical colors and preservatives? Is that “sugar-free” cereal sweetened with sugar-laden fruit juices? Is that “nitrate-free” sausage preserved with another chemical? Does that fruit snack have more corn syrup than fruit? Is your “whole-grain” cracker mostly made of trans-fats? You get the picture.

Choose better alternatives by following these tips:

  • Look out for food preservatives and additives such as artificial food dyes
  • Eat more whole foods. You won’t have to read ingredient lists on unprocessed, unpackaged foods; there are no labels on apples. 
  • Less is more. On the packaged foods you do choose, the very best have fewer than 5 ingredients. You should be able to recognize what they are.
  • If something doesn’t look natural…it isn’t. There is no such think as natural shocking pink unless you’re a flamingo. Avoid purchasing food items that don’t appear natural.
  • Really read labels. Sell by dates and things like country of origin labels can tell you a lot about a packaged food. Most food is perishable without very strong preservatives.
  • Consider packaging. If you have a choice between buying beans in a can (might be lined with the hormone disrupting chemical BPA) or in a glass jar (inert), go for the glass. And if you have the choice between a material that can be recycled in your municipality (like cardboard) versus a plastic that isn’t, go for the former. 
  • Spend the time to read labels and ask questions as you shop and you’ll wind up with the best products your market sells. It’s easier said than done when you’re speed shopping with cranky kids. Keep in mind that there’s a lot less reading required—and some tasty, fresh food—at the farmers’ market.