You breeze through the sliding doors of the grocery store, armed with reusable bags and a plan to eat better. You're done with junk food, and you're moving as far away from the candy and chips aisle as possible.  However, the dilemma intensifies as you take a stroll down the cereal aisle. Your spouse said to snag something "healthy" for breakfast, so naturally Honey Nut Cheerios seem like a great choice. After all, the box claims they can help "lower cholesterol," and they're made with whole grain. Seems like a no-brainer!  Your eyes also scan for any signs of those dubious GMOs. You've heard of Monsanto in the news and want to ensure you aren't eating some kind of mutated crop. As of this year, manufacturers are now required to disclose whether or not their foods are "bioengineered" (made with GMOs) but that doesn't stop labels from being intentionally confusing.  The cryptic, exaggerated, out-of-context labels often make us question what's really healthy. For years, food companies have put deceitful labels on their products to increase sales. An increasingly health-conscious public has demanded more transparency – but just how transparent are these labels? We have a perception of what we think they mean, versus what they actually mean. What does low-fat mean? Does natural mean organic?  Are processed foods bad?  As a teaser, here are some other Trojan Horses you might find at the grocery store: Juice: The FDA requires any juice that any product claiming to be 100% juice must actually be made up of 100% juice. However, there's a loophole that other juices can be added to the mix. So that 100% grape juice you think you're getting might be half cranberry juice. Still, juice companies can get away with their juices being mostly sugar and high fructose corn syrup by adding the words "blend" or "cocktail."  Mayo: Many mayonnaises advertise that they're "made with olive oil." Makes sense. Olive oil is a healthier unsaturated fat that's promoted in many healthy diets. But on many mayos, olive oil isn't the only oil at the party. Many are loaded with other less healthy oils like soybean oil (which has been linked to inflammation, and canola oil.  Multigrain: "Oooh, ahh." Multigrain must mean it's diverse and rich in nutrients, right?  Unless detailed otherwise, multigrain foods don't necessarily use 100% whole grains, which is what you should really be looking out for. We can’t tell you how many times we’ve personally fallen for these food labels. We've been trained to hear these buzzwords and associate them with something positive.  Similar to buying something from a salesman without knowing the hidden costs and fees, we often get suckered in by bold food claims that really don't mean anything. Cage-free doesn't mean cruelty free. Natural doesn't mean healthy. Low-carb isn't a magical bullet.  Yet marketers capitalize on both trendiness and fear. In response, there's been a surge of people wanting to make better choices for themselves, animals, laborers, and the environment. Given that, what other food labels should you be on the lookout for? This battle plan might just save you from getting duped by Big Food.


"Where's the beef?" was a popular tagline from a 1980s Wendy's commercial, but we're still asking the same question today. As of 2021, the average American eats 55 pounds of beef annually. With beef in such high demand, it makes you wonder just how this meat is being produced in such big quantities.  Regardless of if you're a voracious red meat consumer or casual hamburger eater, it's important to note what's quality beef vs. not. The go-to has been to look for "grass-fed" beef, but is that always a reliable indicator?


What we think it means: The cow only ate grass or hay throughout the duration of its life from start to finish (excluding nursing as a calf). Grass-fed beef is healthier than grain-fed beef. What it really means: The cow ate grass or hay for some duration of their life, but we can't verify how much. Because of loopholes, companies can advertise their beef as "grass-fed" because technically-speaking it was at some point. But often the cows are fattened at the end of their life with supplemental food like a grain feed. That's why you should instead lookout for the "grass-finished" beef, which means they only ate grass or hay for their entire life. Certified/Regulated?: The USDA Grass-Fed label must be approved by their Food and Safety Inspection Services (FSIS) arm, but it's not strictly enforced. Look for the American Grassfed Association (AGA) instead. Why this matters: On a nutritional level, grass-fed beef has been shown to have more vitamins (such as vitamin A&E) and overall antioxidants, which reduce risk of disease. It's also lower in overall fat and calorie count. In a country that struggles with obesity, this makes a huge difference. Believe it or not, but it also has properties that reduce cancer risk. It has twice the amount of Conjugated Linoleic Acid (CLA), an anticancer nutrient.


What we think it means: The animals were raised on farms with good living conditions and ethical treatment, such as room to roam and respectful physical treatment. What it really means: This is another vague label that isn't strictly enforced, so you're really just taking the food producers' word for it. That's because the FSIS arm relies on secondhand information – they often don't visit these farms directly. As a Vox article explained, "meat producers must merely fill out a written application offering substantiation as to how their animals are “humanely raised,” supply a sketch of the label ... and that’s about it." Certified/Regulated?: As mentioned before, this is supposed to be regulated by the FSIS arm of the USDA, but it's really just for show. The American Meat Science Association (AMSA) says that "if a company chooses to have a humanely raised label on its meat, the USDA won't inspect its facilities to make sure the label is accurate." Why this matters: It may seem strange to "humanely" treat an animal. Aren't we just going to eat them anyway? From both an ethical and nutrition standpoint, that argument falls flat. Animals raised under stressed conditions with a poor physical diet will not produce as high quality or nutritious meat. Studies have shown that meat raised under humane conditions has lower levels of saturated fat (a big culprit for health issues when consumed in excess) and higher levels of Omega 3 Fatty Acids. It's also better for the environment. "Factory-farming" is known to be wasteful in terms of water use, and typically involves pesticides or growth hormones that seep into our food supply.


What we think it means: Most animals (and especially mammals) have endocrine (hormone-producing) systems, so "hormone-free" is somewhat misleading. However, we generally expect that hormone or antibiotic free means they're free of added artificial growth hormones and medications. What it really means: The FSIS does "random sampling" to ensure that any residual medications or hormones have exited the animal's system. However, hormone or antibiotic-free doesn't mean that they were never used throughout their life. Also, with random sampling as the main method of testing, are they really guaranteed hormone/antibiotic free? Certified/Regulated?: Both the USDA and FDA are involved here. The FDA "prohibits the use of hormones in pork and poultry products" and determines which hormones and antibiotics are safe for food producing animals. However, the USDA's FSIS arm is responsible for checking in. With two understaffed regulatory industries involved, the odds of this being policed well are low. Why this matters: Antibiotics don't need to be used, but compensate for the lack of hygienic conditions, and hormones compensate for the lack of natural growth. The University of Washington found that 80% of antibiotics in the United States are used on agricultural animals. This has massive public health implications. This can lead to the creation of antibiotic resistant bacteria, and that bacteria can show up in our food supply. The CDC reported that 2 million people are infected and 23,000 people will die from antibiotic resistant bacteria. Conversely, here are some labels to look for and what they mean.

Animal Welfare Approved

This is the label you really want to look out for. On almost every level, Animal Welfare Approved means the cow has access to a pasture and is raised with 100% compliance to USDA standards. The most reassuring part of this label is the removal of harmful practices. These cows must…
  • Not be administered antibiotics or growth hormones
  • Not be transported for more than 8 hours
  • Not be dehorned
 Why This Matters: A Greener World, the label's certifier, says that this is the only label that "guarantees animals are raised outdoors on pasture or range for their entire lives on an independent farm using truly sustainable, high-welfare farming practices."

Certified Humane Raised and Handled

While not as thorough or robust as the last label, this is still a valuable label to keep an eye out for. Under this certification, animals are never kept in crates, cages, or tie-stalls. Their feed must not contain antibiotics or hormones, and the animals' environment must meet North American Meet Institute Standards. According to the Certified Humane website, "animals must be free to do what comes naturally. For example, chickens must be able to flap their wings and dust bathe, and pigs must have space to move around and root." Why This Matters: We said earlier that humanely raised matters when it comes to nutrition. However, the way we treat animals matters on an ethical level too. Just because they're being raised for food, doesn't mean we should treat them cruelly or inhumanely. We wouldn't want our dog or cat being cooped up in a cage or left without room to stand up. It's our responsibility to take care of the earth in a way that's responsible and kind. This sets the precedent in doing so.

USDA Organic

This label means that the product must be 95% certified organic. "Organic" is another one of those commonly used but not commonly understood words. Per the USDA, produce "can be called organic if it’s certified to have grown on soil that had no prohibited substances applied for three years prior to harvest. Prohibited substances include most synthetic fertilizers and pesticides." As for meat, it must be raised with room to graze, fed organic feed, and not given any antibiotics or hormones.  Why This Matters: USDA Organic beef "accommodates the animal's natural behaviors" and is raised without hormones or antibiotics. While the organic feed is a blend of corn, grain, and grass, it must be Non-GMO. It's a step up from most beef, and mostly adheres to the practices of being humane and nutrition-conscious.


You'd think beef would top the popularity list in the land of the hamburger, but stats show that Americans like their chicken even more, consuming 96.4 pounds per person annually. As a lean yet protein-packed meat, it serves as a great (and cheaper) alternative to red meat.  However, there's been some fowl play in the poultry industry, leading many to question the livelihoods and quality of the chicken they're eating. Images of chickens locked up in cramped cages and wading in their own poop has generated some outrage from animal-rights activists and consumer advocacy groups. In response, the chicken industry has made an intentional push to reassure you that their chickens are happy and treated the right way. But which labels or certifications can you trust?


What we think it means: The chicken lived as it was naturally intended to: in an open space with the proper diet and daily regimen. People often associate natural with organic, but the two terms couldn't be more different.  What it really means: Nothing. Mercury and arsenic are also "natural," and we wouldn't be too thrilled about those being in our food. Companies have capitalized on nature as a buzzword as natural sounds like it would be healthy. It's another one of those vague terms that we can get suckered into simply based on the way it sounds.  Why this matters: This is straight-up duping people into thinking they're getting a product that's raised organically or humanely. The FDA doesn't have guidelines around the term "natural," so companies can continue using it liberally. From a health standpoint this matters, as people might be ingesting unwanted additives, antibiotics, or hormones without realizing it.

No Added Hormones

What we think it means: The chicken is never given added hormones or steroids at any point in its life.  What it really means: Believe it or not, the above statement is actually accurate. Using any kind of artificial hormones or additives in poultry is forbidden by the FDA. However…that doesn't stop chicken companies from touting this as a big selling point. Since no one can use antibiotics to begin with, who are they differentiating themselves from? Why this matters: Hormone use in chickens isn't needed in the first place, and the fact that it's illegal is a good first step. Perhaps other industries will look to emulate the poultry's industry in this regard.

Certified Organic (with exceptions)

This is one label to look for, in the positive sense. Sadly, organic chicken can be raised in factory farm conditions and this label does not ensure they were raised much more humanely than conventional chickens. However, routine antibiotics and GMOs are prohibited from their food, and they are fed only organic food. Organic chickens must also be given access to the outdoors. Look for this label along with the Animal Welfare Approved, Certified Humane, or the Global Animal Partnership (steps 4, 5, 5+) label.


"I'm never eating seafood again!" you may have exclaimed after watching Netflix's hit documentary Seaspiracy. Okay, while your reaction may not have been that extreme, the film (though not perfect) examines the environmental toll of big seafood companies overfishing and skirting the rules. Scientists and researchers interviewed fear that overfishing is leading to a warming of the ocean, and warn that there could be more plastic in the sea than fish by 2050.  A good chunk of the film deals with how misleading and inaccurate many of the marine protective labels are, particularly because of the lack of regulation. (Noticing a pattern here?) What are some of the most common seafood labels, and how should we evaluate them?

Pole and Line Caught

What we think it means: Fishing the old-fashioned way, with a rod and reel. We often see this on tuna or other popular canned fish. Not subject to "bycatch," in which fishermen accidentally catch other marine species that they cannot keep and therefore discard them. What it really means: Surprisingly, these tuna are actually caught with a pole and line. No gimmicks here. The fishermen catch each massive tuna one at a time as opposed to using a driftnet, which saves other animals like sharks or dolphins from being accidentally caught. With this method, only 1-2% of the catch is ever wasted or thrown back, a huge improvement from mass-catch methods (drift gillnets, longlines) that end up discarding more than half the catch.  Certified/Regulated?: The Marine Stewardship Council certifies pole and line caught tuna from the Maldives pole and line skipjack tuna fishery. However, there's not someone out there checking every pole and line caught tuna, so tread carefully (no pun intended). According to an NPR report, "The MSC does not certify fisheries itself. Instead, a fishery that wants the label hires one of roughly a dozen commercial auditing companies to decide whether its practices comply with the MSC's definition of "sustainable." Why this matters: This is way better for overall populations of marine life like sharks, turtles, whales, and dolphins, as they don't get accidentally caught or killed in the process. Secondly, it empowers local fishermen (typically in smaller, developing countries) over giant fishing enterprises. It also helps prevent overfishing and ensures that tuna populations have time to grow and replenish.

Sustainably Caught

What we think it means: The word sustainably implies that there's an abundant population of the fish being harvested. Our consumption of this fish will not contribute to the decline of the species. However, a recent Truven Health Analytics-NPR Health Poll cited that 66.8% of respondents were "somewhat confident" that fish with sustainably caught was actually true. Not exactly a ringing endorsement.  What it really means: If the fish has a MSC-certified label, there's a decent chance that it was sustainably caught. The MSC is better than no label. "Many MSC-certified fisheries do represent best practice, and broadly speaking, it is still advisable for consumers to buy MSC-labeled fish. However, there are certified fisheries that are a long way from sustainability where seriously harmful practices continue," says Ethical Consumer.  Certified/Regulated?: The MSC supposedly identifies if certain fish are sustainably caught, but as of right now there's not a ton of scrutiny going into guaranteeing that. As stated before, they are reliant on the commercial auditing companies – in other words, second hand knowledge.  Why this matters: Currently 85% of fisheries in the world are exploited, resulting in more endangered fish populations. Similar to pole and line caught, this helps fish populations rebuild.

Responsibly Raised / Farmed

What we think it means: The fish were raised in a healthy situation that did not damage the environment. Workers at the fish farm or fishery were treated ethically and compensated fairly.  What it really means: The fish were raised without antibiotics, tested for any contaminants, and raised in a responsibly managed farm (in every stage of the growth process). You'll most likely see the "Responsibly Farmed" logo at seafood sold at Whole Foods, but other stores are starting to offer products with this certification. Certified/Regulated?: In the case of Whole Foods, the certification is done by "third parties," but they don't clarify exactly who is certifying the claims. In general, the leading certifier for "responsibly farmed" fish is the Aqua Stewardship Council (ASC), which requires that "farms must show that they actively minimize their impact on the surrounding natural environment," and farms must be operated in a "socially responsible manner, caring for their employees and working with the local community." Why this matters: Fish in these farms are being monitored way more closely and are raised in humane conditions with proper feed. This ensures both ecology sustainability and quality of healthiness for you, the consumer.  Conversely, here are some labels to look for and what they mean.

Dolphin Safe

Dolphins, prone to accidentally being caught in fishing nets, are not injured or killed in the catching process. The Earth Island Institute says that to be dolphin-safe, there must be "no use of drift gill nets to catch tuna, and no accidental killing or serious injury to any dolphins during net sets," among other standards, like having an observer aboard.  Certified/Regulated?: The Earth Island Institute has been certifying that dolphins aren't injured in the process of catching tuna since the 1990s. The Seaspiracy documentary focused on this label quite a bit, and asked one of the Dolphin Safe representatives if the label could actually be backed up. "Nope. Nobody can. Once you're out there in the ocean, how do you know what they're doing? We have observers onboard—observers can be bribed and are not out on a regular basis," he said.  Why this matters: Controversy around the "Dolphin Safe" label suggests that there's still a long way to go in terms of accountability. Dolphin populations have been seriously impacted by unsafe fishing practices, and people rightly want that to change. However, this label is misleading us into thinking that meaningful change is occurring. Here's how a recent Forbes article put it: "Most Americans think that the existence of a dolphin-safe label means that no dolphins were harmed when the tuna were caught. In truth, the label only means that one particular fishing method was not used in one particular part of the ocean."

Non-GMO Project Seafood

As the name suggests, this seafood is produced without using GMOs and "minimizes cross-contamination with GMO-derived products." Certified/Regulated?: While the Non-GMO project does not guarantee that the food is 100% GMO-free, they claim that they are "trustworthy, defensible, transparent, and North America’s only third party verification for products made according to best practices for GMO avoidance." The Non-GMO project has not had any controversy and its claims have held up to scrutiny.  Why this matters: We don't know a ton about GMOs, and it's hard to objectively say if they're safe or not, despite many scientists claiming they are. And while they shouldn't be the bogeyman blamed for every issue, they're still experimental at the end of the day. For instance, a popular GMO salmon was engineered to grow more quickly and contained DNA from three other fish species. The theme of misleading or confusing customers pops up here too, as until recently, many companies got away without disclosing that their product contained genetically modified or engineered ingredients.

Friend of the Sea

This organization, an offshoot of the World Sustainability Organization, claims to ensure sustainable seafood, products, and services. This is their criteria for fisheries: 
  • The product should not originate from overexploited (nor depleted, data deficient or recovering) stocks
  • The fishing method should not impact the seabed
  • The fishing method should be selective
  • The fishery should respect all legal requirements.
 Certified/Regulated?: According to, Friend of the Sea's "standards are not well documented and it is hard to determine what they are or if they can be trusted. Why this matters: Again, this sounds like a beneficial label to have. However, like Dolphin Safe, it's tough to assess just how much oversight they have over vast oceans.


According to Statista, over 315 million Americans used eggs in 2020 – about 95% of the population. Eggs are incredibly popular and can be used for a variety of baking needs, even if you aren't too fond of scrambled eggs in the morning. They're also fairly cheap, which has led to some suspicion about how they're being raised. If chickens aren't being raised with care, what does that do to the "product" they produce? Rising skepticism around the poultry industry has also led people to scrutinize how eggs are produced. Here are some of the most popular egg labels you might find:


What we think it means: The chickens were not cooped up in cages and had plenty of room to roam around. They aren't stomping in their own poop and have plenty of distance from their neighbors.  What it really means: Unfortunately, cage-free is one of those classic "loophole" labels. Technically they might not be in a cage, however, that doesn't mean they have ample room to move around. The worst cages are called battery cages, which smushes chickens together as if they're part of a military holding pen, or "battery." Cage-free means that the chickens weren't held in these battery cages. However, there's still a level of confinement, and the chickens aren't out roaming in their natural environment. "These birds can still be crammed 20,000-40,000 to a barn, effectively unable to move, without any access to the outdoors," says a report from White Oak Pastures.  Certified/Regulated?: Certified Humane, a nonprofit, has a "cage-free" logo certifying that "the hens are not held in battery cages or aviary systems designed to "confine birds." The USDA also regulates cage-free eggs and claims that the AMS (Agricultural Marketing Service) "verifies cage-free claims for shell eggs by visiting the farms twice each year to ensure that the eggs are in fact coming from a cage-free flock."  Why this matters: As we've said before, stressed animals without room to roam often produce worse meat, or in this case, eggs. Like the "natural" label, you may think you're getting a huge upgrade by opting for cage-free, when really these hens could still be incredibly confined. 


What we think it means: The chickens had tons of room to roam! You could say they were free as a bird.  What it really means: Sadly this is typically another misleading claim. Just because they have access to an outdoor space, doesn't mean they spend a ton of time there. Different producers have different standards, but this is such a nebulous term that many can qualify for it under the USDA guidelines.  Certified/Regulated?: The most common certifier of Free-Range is the USDA, which guarantees that the chicken had access to the outdoors during their life. "There are no requirements for length of time spent outdoors, the size of the outdoor area or the type of ground cover. There is no guarantee that the chicken ever ventured out of the enclosure," said an article from SF Gate. There have been some third-parties that have emerged to certify free range, but none with as much influence or oversight as the USDA. Why this matters: This is a good step forward, as the natural behavior of a chicken involves foraging and roaming. However, the lack of time they get "on the range" may not be as high as we think. When they don't have time to roam or peck at the ground, bugs, or grass, they often peck at each other instead, which causes a host of issues.

Pasture Raised

What we think it means: The hens were raised on a farm and had plenty of room to roam.  What it really means: Pasture Raised often gets lumped in with "organic," but the two are not the same. Pasture Raised is the "gold standard," as it requires that the chickens had at least 108 square feet of room to ram.  Certified/Regulated?: There isn't a huge Pasture Raised certifier or a USDA Pasture Raised logo, as most often they come from smaller, more local farms. Oftentimes the farms invite you to check out their farm and see for yourself, though let's be honest: who's driving out to the farm to make sure their $5.99 eggs are legit? (If you do, more props to you.) Vital Farms is a great example of a reputable Pasture Raised egg producer. Why this matters: Pastured Raised gets us back to the way chickens should be raised. They get to roam out in nature, eat bugs, and take in sunshine. Unsurprisingly, the best quality eggs in terms of texture, taste, and nutrition come from chickens who lived this more normal lifestyle.

Organic (label on animal products)

What we think it means: The hens producing the eggs only consumed an organic diet throughout their lifetime. What it really means: According to the USDA, organic eggs must come from "uncaged hens that are free to roam in their houses and have access to the outdoors." The hens are fed an organic diet of feed produced without conventional pesticides or fertilizers. However, organic doesn't immediately mean healthy, as we've mentioned before.  Certified/Regulated?: A survey done by Mintel Group shows that 74% of Americans don't trust the USDA Organic label. Though there have been some cases of "organic fraud," Miles McEvoy, Deputy Administrator of the National Organic Program, says that "we protect organic farms and businesses who are playing by the rules by taking enforcement actions, and impose fines on those who break the rules.”  Why this matters: While it's good that organic-raised chickens are fed a "better" diet without pesticides, antibiotics, or growth hormones, there's still no guarantee that they had extensive time out on the pasture getting normal nutrients, sunlight, and space to run. Still, organic is a solid option if you can't get pasture raised.

Paying for good quality eggs can be slightly more expensive, but worth it in the long run. While going to a local farm to get eggs is a great option, there are other more convenient ways to ensure you're getting pasture-raised or at least free-range eggs. Here are a few brands you can look out for at your local grocery or wholesale store: 
  • Vital Farms: Vital Farms actually backs up its moniker of "Honest Food, Ethically Produced." Their eggs are pasture-raised and sourced from small, family farms. You can actually use their website to trace the specific farm/conditions your eggs came from. It's also convenient to find out where their eggs are sold near you. 
  • Pete and Gerry's: These eggs are certified USDA organic, free-range, and certified humane. They've joined forces with over 100 family run farms and have a family-run business themselves for over 60 years. They're distinct in flavor, with rich orange yolks and smooth texture.
  • Wilcox Organic: This Pacific Northwest based farm also adheres to Certified Humane standards. Hens are free-range for the first 21 weeks of their life. At week 22, they are moved to permanent housing and have access to the pasture throughout the day. 
 If you can't find these brands (or similar, family-farm oriented egg providers), there are often egg purveyors at local farmer's markets or farm stands. You can also get eggs delivered from a local farm. The Egg Drop in Portland, Oregon is a great example of this. 


Even though vegetables and produce have their own misleading claims, you can be somewhat confident that what you're seeing is what you're getting. An apple is an apple. A pepper is a pepper. But packaged foods, which dominate many of the products at the grocery store, can be a bit harder to decipher.  Because of our bent towards convenience, packaged foods end up becoming a big part of our snacking routine during the day. Ever forget your lunch and settle for some vending machine offerings?  However, packaged food makers recognize that many of their products are inherently unhealthy, and will use big healthy sounding claims to lure you in.

Low-Fat or Fat-Free

What we think it means: There's no fat content, and that's a good thing, because…."fat is bad?" What it really means: In the 1990s obesity was on the rise and thus fat was targeted as the main culprit. Many food companies started eliminating any kind of fat from their products – nevermind that certain fats (such as unsaturated fats like olive oil) are good for you when part of a balanced diet. This set off what was known as the "Snackwell" phenomenon. Snackwell's, a popular brand of snacking cookies, touted the label "Fat-Free" prominently on its box. However, that meant relatively nothing, according to nutritionist and Food Politics author Marion Nestle: "The idea was to reduce saturated fat, but the assumption was that it was too complicated to explain all that, and that if people just reduced their fat content, the fat content of their diet, they would be improving it. What nobody realized--or at least I certainly could never have guessed--was that the food industry would substitute vegetable fats for animal fats in such a profound way, and would also substitute sugars for fats, and keep the calorie content of the products exactly the same." As Nestle noted, the preoccupation with fat distracted from other key nutritional indicators like sugar and calorie count. Without fat, companies were forced to load sugar into their products to compensate for the lack of taste. Why this matters: When you see "fat-free" on a package, be wary of what that actually means. In many cases, it might actually be better to just get a product with full-fat if you're going to indulge. This is yet another example of deceptive marketing. Fat-free doesn't mean preservative-free or carbohydrate-free. Your body needs fat as an energy source, so don't cut it out completely – just choose better, unsaturated fats like olive oil or nuts.


What we think it means: The product has a low calorie count, making it a viable option for those trying to eat between 2,000-2,500 calories per day (the recommended daily value for adults). What it really means: Often food companies will make alternative, low-calorie versions of their products. Take Oreo Thins, for example, the "low-calorie" version of Oreos. The term "thin" makes it seem SO much healthier, but in reality it's only healthy by comparison. And oftentimes, it's not a huge difference. One Oreo Thin has 35 calories, compared to an original Oreo cookie, which has 53 calories. Yet Nabisco can market them as low-calorie, as technically they are lower by proxy. Just because it's low-calorie in comparison to the original, doesn't mean it's low-calorie when compared to other cookies on the market. Why this matters: Just because a product is lower in calories, it also comes at a cost. Low-calorie products tend to have more artificial ingredients in order to add them as fillers and decrease the amount of highly caloric ingredients. Often these artificial ingredients are more harmful than the bogeyman ingredients in the original product, like sugar. Artificial sweeteners contain no calories, but "may be likelier to make you get hungry, eat more throughout the day and develop diabetes," says Cleveland Clinic.

Low-Carb or Keto

What we think it means: Keto diets, which are all the rage these days, entail burning fats as opposed to carbohydrates as a means of burning energy. For those who are looking to shed weight, it's a viable option. If we see "low carb," or "Keto," labels, we'd assume the carbohydrate count is low. What it really means: The USDA bans any kind of Keto or Low-Carb messaging on their products. And the FDA is cracking down on products that make this claim, as no nutrition content claim for "low carb" currently exists. If you actually want to find out if a food is low-carb, check the nutrition facts on the back and look at total carbohydrates. Or in general, skip packaged foods, which tend to be carb-heavy by nature, and opt for naturally low-carb vegetables like avocados or cauliflower. Why this matters: Fad diets and buzzwords can often give us a false sense of comfort. Keto diets involve burning fat instead of glucose from carbs. This can be effective for people trying to lose weight, but it isn't typically sustainable in the long run. Some incorrectly use keto as a means of consuming fatty animal products only, which can lead to higher cholesterol and heart issues. If you aren't actually doing a keto diet, you probably don't need to consume certified keto foods.


What we think it means: There is no sugar in the product whatsoever. What it really means: Sugar-free is often used to denote foods that have no added sugar, or no white / refined sugar. However, that doesn't stop them from using fruit-derived additives that naturally contain sugar, such as coconut palm sugar. And most of the time, sugar-free items contain artificial sweeteners like sorbitol or sucralose. Why this matters: Instead of just eating a sugary snack in moderation, people often eat sugar-free products every day thinking they're guilt-free as well. But no food is truly "neutral," and we have to consider what substitute sweeteners like sucralose are doing to us. Sucralose can lead to digestive issues and kill beneficial probiotics in our gut, and also mess with our insulin levels.

Heart Healthy

What we think it means: The food is low in sodium, cholesterol, and other ingredients that have been linked to high blood pressure or heart issues. What it really means: In 1995, the American Heart Association began a labeling program called the Heart Check that allowed certain foods to be labeled "heart healthy." Here's the criteria:Total Fat: Less than 6.5 g.Saturated Fat: 1 g or less and 15% or less calories from saturated fat.Trans Fat: Less than 0.5 gCholesterol: 20 mg or less.While many foods can qualify for this standard, it often overshadows some of the more unhealthy ingredients, like sugar. Lucky Charms and Trix cereal have both received the AHA heart check logo, if that tells you anything. The fact that brands pay a fee to the AHA for this certification is also dubious. While it doesn't guarantee that the AHA will approve it, many have questioned if this is just another form of "pay for play." Why this matters: Heart disease and heart attacks are leading causes of death in the United States. Given that, we don't have time to "guess" if foods are really beneficial for our health. Eating Frosted Flakes isn't going to reduce our risk of heart attack as much as cardiovascular exercise or produce like cruciferous vegetables. The Heart Healthy claim is mostly a marketing ploy.

Fruit Flavored

What we think it means: The food is sweetened only with fruit. What it really means: This label is often used in juices or gummies to make it seem like the only flavoring comes from fruit, but the products often contain artificial flavorings and added sugars. In Betty Crocker Scooby-Doo! Fruit Flavored Snacks, for instance, the first ingredient is corn syrup. Moreover, these products often contain artificial dyes like Red 40, a synthetic dye made from petroleum that's been linked to behavioral issues in children. "An estimated 8 percent of children living with Attention Deficit-Hyperactive Disorder (ADHD) in the U.S., U.K., Australia and Canada may have behavioral symptoms tied to synthetic food colors, per a January 2012 review of 34 studies published in the ​Journal of the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry," says a recent article from Livestrong. Why this matters: As we touch on in our blog, The Rise of Disease and Greed, vulnerable children are often preyed on and targeted by food companies. They push the idea of "getting fruit" despite knowing the ingredients contain dyes and additives that are banned in other countries. This is blatant injustice on consumers who have little education or say in the matter.


The ingredients list on the back of the package is arguably more important than the food labels on the front. Sure, the aforementioned labels can help you make a quick decision, but taking a few extra seconds to check the ingredients label is half the battle. If food companies are deceptive with their front-of-package branding, it follows that the ingredients list will be just as confusing or misleading. The most common thing companies will try to hide is the hidden sugars within. Astoundingly, there are at least 61 different names for sugar on food labels and ingredients lists, such as high fructose corn syrup, sucrose, brown rice syrup, or barley malt.

Check the Top 3 Ingredients

Food companies know that you often look at the top three listed ingredients as you scan through what's in their product. They know you'll recoil if you see something like SUGAR as the first ingredient. However, just because it's not the first ingredient, doesn't mean it's not in there.  There are little tricks that the producer will use to stave off having sugar as a "main ingredient." For instance, "a manufacturer may use a combination of sucrose, high-fructose corn syrup, corn syrup solids, brown sugar, dextrose and other sugar ingredients to make sure none of them are present in large enough quantities to attain a top position on the ingredients list," says the Organic Consumers Association.

Identify Confusing or Chemical-Sounding Ingredients

Food author Michael Pollan once mused: "Don't buy products with more than five ingredients or any ingredients you can't easily pronounce."  There's some truth to that, but we'll also put a disclaimer on that. There are obviously easy to pronounce ingredients that aren't good for us. And certain weird-sounding foods aren't super harmful, such as Xanthan Gum, a thickener that the FDA considers safe for consumption. However, on the whole, we should be wary of many of these man-made chemical compounds used as frequent additives. Polysorbate 60, for instance, is a concoction of corn, palm oil, and petroleum. Yikes. Propylene glycol alginate (E405), is an emulsifier and thickener that's used in ice creams and salad dressings, and also in antifreeze and de-icers.

Watch out for "faux-healthy"

Like we've stated many times, food labels are constantly pandering to what we think is healthy. But don't be fooled by fancy-sounding herbs or ingredients that the manufacturer shoves somewhere in the ingredients list. You might see something like goji berries, which have noted antioxidants and other benefits, somewhere near the bottom. But ingredients lists don't show quantities, so they could've put a miniscule amount just to say "look, there's some fruit in this!" They'll also try to distract from the "bad," by emphasizing other inherent health benefits. It's the classic Wizard of Oz effect. Pay no attention to the sugar behind the curtain, because this juice has 100% of your daily Vitamin C!

Look at serving size

Last but certainly not least, check the serving size! Companies will dupe you by with huge claims like "150 CALORIES," but just how big is the serving? If it's 150 calories in half a cup, and a standard portion is a full cup, you're actually getting 300 calories. The amount really doesn't matter if it's not a realistic serving size.  This is especially prevalent in cereals, which will use fractional amounts to push lower sugar or carbs. C'mon. Who's really eating ¼ a cup of cereal?


Okay, so, can I even eat anything anymore? Yes! The goal in digging into these food labels is not to make you a skeptical cynic, but rather to help you be better informed and aware. We can't win every battle, but we can be more aware so we aren't tricked into thinking we're eating healthy. This flies in the face of convenience, but if you're seriously interested in being intentional about what you eat, go straight to the source. There's no better way to know what you are buying than to go to your local farms. You can connect online with farmers markets, subscription-based Community Supported Agriculture (CSAs), buying clubs and farms at or You can also talk to the vendors at your local farmers market about their growing practices and labor standards. Small farmers may not have the financial means to pay for a USDA Organic sticker, yet might use way more ethical and sustainable farming practices. At the very least, call them or go on their websites to see what they're all about. In an increasingly transparent world with documentaries like Seaspiracy pushing for accountability, we have power to both disrupt the system and know what we're actually eating. Next time you hit the grocery store, consider budgeting out a few extra minutes to check some of those food labels. The hope is that by educating yourself, you'll automatically know what these buzz-words mean and can decide whether or not it's worth a buy.


Your journey with food is unique, so you deserve to be uniquely served. These fields help us better understand how to help you with your nutrition journey.

*Your data is covered through our privacy policy.