Labels That Actually Tell You If Food Is Good for You

Forget “No Fat”, “Natural” or “Made with Real Fruits.” There are statements on food bags that make you think you are buying something useful , but many of these labels are useless to you, the consumer. Here’s how to tell a few helpful shortcuts from their confusing cousins.

100% whole grains

Looking for : Brand of 100% Whole Grains from the Whole Grain Council

Why : White flour and white rice are missing parts of the original grain (in particular the bran and germ). Whole grains are much higher in fiber and certain vitamins and minerals than their refined counterparts. Products stamped “100% Whole Grains” contain a full serving of whole grains in every serving.

Caveats: Compare the entire ingredient list before buying: Sometimes whole grain bread contains more sugar (or honey, or corn syrup) than its white flour counterparts. In addition, white flour contains more certain nutrients because they need to be added. This includes folic acid, an extremely important nutrient for women who may become pregnant.

Not to be confused with : “Multigrains” are not the same thing: it means multiple grains, which may or may not be whole. “Made from whole grains” is questionable because there can only be a small amount of whole grains per serving. And if you’re looking for whole grain bread, beware of the single word “wheat.” If it’s not “whole grain flour,” it’s just another word for refined white flour.

Grass fed

Look for “Grass-fed” or “Forage-fed” beef, dairy, bison, and lamb.

Why : Animals that eat grass produce healthier fats in milk and meat. An alternative is to feed these animal grains so that they grow faster (lowering the cost of cereal meat). Grain feeding is associated with some serious health and environmental problems : commercially grown corn, antibiotic resistance, and the proliferation of some harmful bacteria.

Cautions: Grass-eating animals should not be on pasture all year round, especially in areas with cold winters. Meanwhile, chickens and pigs don’t eat grass, so they don’t have an equivalent term.

Not to be confused with the words “pasture” or “pasture-raised” allusion to the fact that the animal spent time in a grassy field, but these words do not have a precise legal definition . There isn’t really a more accurate term for chickens and pigs, so if you’re looking for truly grazing eggs, check out what the producer means: some (like Organic Valley ) will explain it on their website.

No antibiotics

Look for “Grew up without antibiotics” or “Without antibiotics.” The USDA Organic label also ensures that no antibiotics have been used.

Why : Meat animals are often fed antibiotics, which causes them to grow faster for reasons that scientists still do n’t fully understand . Farm antibiotics play a huge role in building and maintaining antibiotic resistance , which is a real and growing problem. Cooking will kill bacteria, so your risk is low if you use the right food processing methods – but no one is perfect.

It’s also a public health issue that may come back to you: farm workers can become infected with resistant bacteria (and pass it on to others), and resistant bacteria can be spread through manure and water runoff. Buying antibiotic-free meat is helping farmers and regulators move away from antibiotic use in animal husbandry. For example, McDonald’s and Costco restrict the use of antibiotics in their meats.

Caveats : This label does not say anything else about how the animal was raised. Also, it has nothing to do with egg packaging because laying hens usually don’t take antibiotics.

Animal welfare certificates

Look for : Animal Welfare Approved, Certified Humane, or American Humane Certified (among others)

Why : It’s more for animal health and only indirectly for you. For example, chicks raised with these certifications get more room to move around. But many certifications prohibit antibiotics or require access to pasture, which can also affect your health (for the reasons outlined above).

Caveats : all certifications are different. This page compares several popular certifications and ingredients for USDA Organic Animal Health, and here is a detailed chart drawn by the people running the Certified Humane program.

Not to be confused : with each other.

Organic

Look for : Organic, USDA Organic, 100% Organic.

Why : While this is well known and easy to laugh at (oh, are you only feeding your little ones organic lentils?), You shouldn’t assume, as some may think , that the organic label is completely useless. The term has a very precise definition and inspections ensure that farmers comply with the rules that allow them to use the label.

Food that qualifies as organic ranges from truly organic farms to industrial mega farms that meet minimum requirements. Some of the requirements are definitely good news. For instance:

  • Synthetic fertilizers cannot be used to grow organic crops (or crops grown as animal feed for organic animals). Synthetic fertilizers are widely used in industrial agriculture, but are very harmful to the environment .
  • There are some minimum welfare requirements for animals, so if you can’t find animal products certified by one of the seals mentioned above, but still want to buy that meat, dairy, or eggs, organic is the second good choice.
  • Antibiotics are not approved for use in animals, so this is another way to make sure you are not contributing to the development of antibiotic resistance and similar health problems as described above.

Caveats : Most of the benefits of organic foods aren’t for you personally; they are mainly for the environment, animals and the health of agricultural workers. This means you don’t need to be afraid of non-organic foods. It won’t dose you with harmful levels of pesticides (even if you eat it every day), and it is no more nutritious . It’s better for your health to eat fruits and vegetables altogether than to skip some of them because they are not organic.

Organic means a lot of other things, and they all act as a package. Organic food should not be irradiated, even if the irradiation is completely safe (no, it does not make food radioactive). It cannot include genetically modified crops, even though objections to GMOs are largely based on misunderstandings . Therefore, you have to take the good with the sometimes meaningless.

Not to be confused with natural or any other useful word other than organic. (A group of organic food companies filmed afunny video mocking the “natural” label , which is pretty much true.)

Why is this list so short

Products that boast health benefits on the front of the packaging are usually not very healthy to begin with. You know better which foods are right for your diet, and when in doubt, turn the packaging over to check what’s important to you, such as the macronutrients on the Nutrition Facts label.

With that in mind, I would like to nominate several labels for honorable mentions: there are good ideas behind them, but packages proclaiming these claims should be viewed with suspicion.

“High in” or “Excellent Source”: When combined with the name of a vitamin or other nutrient, this label means you are getting at least 20% of your RDA in a single serving. Other phrases such as “contains” or “good source” do not mean the same thing. The caveat, of course, is that most of the products on this label are junk food. For example, these cookies are a “great source” of calcium and iron.

Zero grams of trans fats : Everyone agrees that trans fats are bad for you , but there is no one clear label to help you avoid them. Paradoxically, anything that boasts zero grams of trans fat is almost guaranteed to contain trans fats – just under half a gram per serving, as this allows the manufacturer to round to zero. (Even more confusing, some animal foods, such as butter, contain small amounts of trans fat. This type of trans fat is probably good for our health, maybe even beneficial.) What should we do instead? Turn the container over and look for “partially hydrogenated” in the ingredients list.

There are many healthy labels on food these days, but most of the rest are misleading or perhaps pointless. Do you think I missed a good one? Let me know in the comments.

Vitals is a new blog from Lifehacker dedicated to health and fitness. Follow us on Twitter here .

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