Maintaining a healthy diet in today’s complex world often feels like a full-time job. You’d think that the many labels slapped on food products would make this process easier, but this isn’t always the case. Some labels are genuine signs of an all-around good product, some labels are not quite what they seem, and some labels are downright mis-leading (and used only to inflate the perceived value of a product).
Below, you’ll find a primer on many of the most common food labels. To make it even easier for you to navigate this confusing corner of the nutrition world.
We have divided labels into the good, the bad, and the ugly—that is, genuinely good labels, labels that are misleading or relatively unimportant, and labels that you should avoid like the plague.
Products with these labels are (generally) good ones
As a general rule, you should strive to purchase products that are labeled in the following manner. There are caveats—no label is a guarantee of perfectly healthy food—but eating and drinking in accordance with these labels usually means you’re on the right track.
Organic is arguably the original food label, and it’s still the gold standard of verifiably healthy food. Produce that is certified organic must be grown without the use of prohibited materials (like pesticides, synthetic fertilizers, and other pollutants), non-GMO, and grown by sustainable farming techniques (like positive soil building and crop rotation). Organic animal products must be hormone and antibiotic-free, and they must come from animals that are fed with 100% organic food and given outdoor access.
Here’s the catch, though: only products with the USDA Organic seal are 95-100% organic; other companies might still use the word “organic” all over their packaging, even if only 70% of their ingredients are organic.
Unfortunately, it’s also been discovered that some certified organic produce is contaminated with glyphosate, the horrendously toxic main ingredient in Monsanto’s RoundUp pesticide. Buying organic is still the safest best, though. Switching from conventional to organic food that transform your health in a surprisingly short amount of time.
Non-GMO. Always look for the “Non-GMO Project Verified” seal. Remember that all organic products are non-GMO, but not all non-GMO products are organic. In the latter case, be sure to look into the source of the product—sometimes small farms with very high-integrity practices just can’t afford the organic certification process, so they make do with the non-GMO label.
Free-range or free-roaming are used interchangeably. While they’re certainly better than conventional, it’s important to note that all these labels mean is that the animals are given outdoor access (there’s no rule about how much outdoor time they need to be given, and some “free-range” animals are kept in shockingly small cages when they’re not outside).
It’s still a step in the right direction, though—and again, these labels can be helpful for small-scale, local farmers who can’t afford the official organic label (just make sure the company isn’t a large agri-business trying to hide its unscrupulous practices).
Grass-fed and grass-finished. Studies have demonstrated that grass-fed animal products are far more healthful than those that come from grain-fed animals (a high-grain diet causes increased inflammation and illness in animals, just like in humans). Note that animals only need to be fed with grass until a certain point in their lives in order to be certified “grass-fed”; to ensure that your products have come from animals who were fed with grass throughout their lives, you’ll need to look for the “grass-finished” label.
Fair-trade means that, if the product was sourced from other countries, the workers in those countries were provided with fair wages and good working conditions. This certification is very difficult to get (the process can take up to a decade), so the lack of a fair trade label doesn’t guarantee that a company has bad work practices. Products that do have this coveted label, though, have undoubtedly gone the distance and proven their work integrity.
Cold-pressed is a label that you’ll find on different types of oil, and represents the best choice. Unlike expeller-pressing (which is discussed below), cold-pressing extracts the oil with heatless pressure, which preserves its delicate flavors and nutrients.
Unrefined oils are similarly nutrient-dense and flavorful, because they haven’t been subjected to the nasty processes that accompany refined extractions. If you can find an oil that is both cold-pressed and unrefined, you’re golden.
Take it or leave it
These labels are somewhat arbitrary, but in rare cases can be the sign of a healthy food product. You’ll be good to go if you simply stick with the labels listed in the previous section, but the ones below are listed for the sake of thoroughness (it’s good to be educated about everything that food product marketers throw at you).
Heritage animal products come from animals that have been designated as a rare or antique breed. This label usually doesn’t signify a healthier product, though heritage meats are known to have a higher fat content and richer flavors.
Wild game is another label for animal product connoisseurs. While its name seems self-explanatory, most “wild game” is actually farmed—there are no requirements for labeling food in this way, and many restaurants do so simply as a marketing gimmick.
Good source. Many foods will be labeled as a “good source” of one nutrient or another (usually vitamins or minerals). This means that one serving contains 10-19% of the RDA (recommended daily allowance) for that nutrient. There’s no deception here, but this label is still a long way from guaranteeing healthfulness—10-19% is a rather insignificant amount, and the RDA’s for many nutrients are already far below optimal levels.
Pasture-raised is a somewhat misleading label. These products have come from animals who were allowed to eat grass from a pasture, but they’re often let outside for exceedingly short periods of time, or kept in moveable cages that are dragged around the pasture. It’s somewhat like a combination of “free-range” and “grass-fed,” without any of the benefits of either.
Fresh foods are those that are raw, have never been frozen or heated, and contain no preservatives. Foods labeled as “fresh” are often irradiated, though, so don’t count on this label for a guarantee of healthfulness.
Be wary of these labels
These labels are surefire signs of sub-optimal or even wholly unhealthy products—even though their names are formulated to sound appealing. In order to maintain the best nutrition possible, you should ignore the arbitrary ones and avoid the unhealthy ones.
Refined oils are extracted under high temperatures, which destroys the oil’s most important nutrients. The process is usually carried out with toxic solvents, and sometimes bleaching agents and chemical deodorizers are used, as well. Despite the fact that the word “refined” usually carries a positive connotation, these oils are some of the unhealthiest you can buy.
Expeller-pressed oils, while better than refined oils, are still pressed at much higher temperatures than cold-pressed oils (up to 210 degrees Fahrenheit). This process destroys a significant portion of the oil’s nutrients.
Healthy is a label which, despite how it sounds, is almost completely meaningless. “Healthy” foods are required to be low in saturated fats, cholesterol, and sodium (all of which can actually be quite healthy if consumed in the proper forms and quantities).
Natural labels are equally arbitrary, and are usually used to distract you from the fact that a product is not certified organic (or some other legitimate designation). “Natural” meat and poultry don’t contain any added artificial ingredients or colors, but other than that, there’s almost no truly healthy attributes that this label guarantees.
Fat-free or calorie-free. Foods labeled as such must contain less than 0.5 grams of fat or less than 5 calories. This means almost nothing for your overall health, though, as saturated fats are actually exceptionally healthy for you, and a healthy diet is measured by the kinds of foods you eat, not the number of calories that those foods contain. For example, processed foods laden with toxic artificial sweeteners could be labeled as “fat-free” and “calorie-free,” and yet they wreak havoc on your entire body.
The moral of the story
In short: eat organic and non-GMO, pay attention to labels (but don’t be swayed for misleading marketing), and refer to the primer above when you’re unsure about a product.
With a little self-education and common sense, food labels can serve as a great ally in the process of planning and maintaining a perfectly healthful diet.