Food Labels: What They Mean and How to Read Them

Now that some of us are heading back to school, or back to the (actual) office, we’re getting back to packing lunches and meal prepping. And, if this year has made anything clear, it’s that our health is more important than ever–what we put in our body is going to help it run its best. So, we’ve been reading up on food labels and whether we can, or can’t, rely on them to tell us what’s good for us.

Here are a few of the most common labels and what they really mean.

  • Natural or All natural: This, unfortunately, means next to nothing, simply because not all natural ingredients are good, and not all artificial ingredients are bad. While you can usually count on foods labeled “all natural” to be free of artificial colors, sweeteners, or preservatives, it doesn’t mean they’ll be good for you.
  • Organic: foods labeled organic have to be certified to be pesticide-free, so you can trust that foods with this label have been vetted. But this label doesn’t mean much beyond that–when it comes to processed foods, “organic” doesn’t mean “healthier.” 
  • Cage-free: This certification only means that chickens aren’t kept in cages, not that they have adequate space or clean conditions. When choosing meat or eggs, look for packaging that says “free-range” or lists the square footage allotted to each hen.
  • Pasture Raised / grass fed: This means that the cow you’re getting your milk or meat from got at least a portion of its diet from grass in a pasture–not that it was exclusively pasture-raised. However, the only way to tell whether or not an animal was humanely raised or fed an overall healthy diet is to check with the farm or supplier, or see if the packaging makes note of any extra steps taken to keep their animals healthy. 
  • No additives / no added sugar: Similarly to “all natural,” the mileage varies on this because the label in itself is misleading. A bottled smoothie with “no added sugar” may still have 50g of fruit sugars. And what exactly are “additives,” really? Opt for whole foods, or minimally processed foods, to avoid having to google ingredient lists.

Want to do a little good for the planet, too? Look twice at labels that claim something is “sustainable” and look instead for these keywords–

  • Fair Trade
  • OneCert
  • Certified Organic
  • SalmonSafe
  • Pole & Line Caught (tuna)