Trying to understand food labels can feel a lot like learning another language. Take a trip to the grocery store and turn over the back of a packaged food item, and the ingredient list sounds like Chinese. Proplyparaben... Aspartame... Potassium bromate... Oh, that last one sounds healthy. Potassium is a nutrient, right? Not to mention all the claims that you’ll find on the FRONT of packages. For instance, Honey Nut Cheerios makes the bold claim on the front of their box that it “can help lower cholesterol as part of a heart healthy diet”. Who wouldn’t want a healthy heart? The reality is that in both cases, to buy products that have the baffling ingredients above or to throw a box of Honey Nut Cheerios in your cart would be bad decisions for your health. Food companies are not your friend, at least not the majority of them.  Their goal is to deceive you and maximize sales, even if the product they’re selling causes disease. In fact, major food companies have strategic teams dedicated to finding legal loopholes so that they can make misleading claims on their packages. The problem is that your ability to fight off disease and take control of your health largely depends on your ability to read food labels. It might sound like Chinese, but it’s something you need to learn. We’re here to help. Through this guide, we will teach you how to decode food labels and shift the power back into your hands. This will loosen the hold that corrupt food companies have over you.  And over time, the ability to recognize what is healthy and what is not will become natural to you. Just like the process of becoming fluent in a second language. To help guide you, we’ve tagged each label as either GOOD, BAD or NEUTRAL.



In 2021, beef consumption reached an all-time high in the United States at 30 billion pounds. That number is nearly double what was being consumed in the early 1960s. Which goes to say, producing meat at this rate is simply unnatural. The average person would be shocked at the methods that beef producers use to maintain this level of production.  To make cattle grow faster, antibiotics and growth hormones are used, which are scientifically proven to be toxic for our health. On the ground level, we then end up consuming this meat through fast food chains, restaurants and packaged meat at the grocery store. This section of the guide will be essential to helping you only buy and consume meat that is genuinely healthy for you. Here’s some of the most common labels you’ll see on packages and in marketing claims.

Grass-Fed (GOOD)

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: Grass-fed beef simply has much more nutritional value than grain-fed beef. This includes more vitamins and antioxidants, which reduces risk of disease. In fact, grass-fed beef can have up to five times the amount of Omega-3 fatty acids, compared to grain-fed beef. Not to mention that it also has double the amount of Conjugated Linoleic Acid (CLA), which helps reduce overall body fat. In a country that struggles with obesity, this all makes a huge difference.

Humanely-Raised (NEUTRAL)

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: 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", which is central to the inhumane treatment, also typically involves pesticides or growth hormones that seep into our food supply.

Hormone/Antibiotic-Free (NEUTRAL)

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, which are harmful for human consumption. 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. Additionally, with random sampling as the main method of testing, you cannot guarantee that the meat is actually 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: As mentioned, antibiotics and hormones are harmful, because they can cause disease in humans. Beef producers know they don’t need to use antibiotics and hormones, but they still do so for profit. Antibiotics are used to compensate for the lack of hygienic conditions, while hormones are used to compensate for the lack of natural growth. Antibiotic-use can also 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.

Animal Welfare Approved (GOOD)

What it means: This label means that 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." And as we learned above, animals raised under humane conditions will produce higher quality and nutritious meat.

Certified Humane Raised and Handled (GOOD)

What it means: While not as credible as “Animal Welfare Approved”, this label still has value. 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 (GOOD)

What this means: This label means that the product must be 95% certified organic. 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. If the package also has one labels above (i.e. Animal Welfare Approved), this is an excellent choice. 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. However, if something says “organic” but not “USDA Organic”, that doesn’t necessarily mean that it is bad. Small meat producers often cannot afford the certification for the USDA Organic label. But if you buy from them, you’re simply taking them at their word. It's worth noting that most beef served at restaurants, in addition to fast food chains, are NOT organic -- another reason to never buy from these sources.


Like beef, poultry production has skyrocketed in recent decades. We consume over three times the amount of chicken that we did in the early 1960s. To the surprise of many, this is not the result of using antibiotics or growth hormones. However, there are still unethical and inhumane practices involved with chicken production that ultimately end up negatively affecting our health. Chickens have gotten abnormally large as a result of what is known as selective breeding The Human League explains that this an abnormal practice “of breeding two animals with a desired trait in order to produce offspring with that same trait.” Chicken producers basically “hack” the natural breeding process and selectively choose to only breed large birds with other large birds. Over time this raises the size of the birds generationally. While this may not appear unethical at first glance, it’s incredibly problematic for multiple reasons. The chickens are born to suffer, as they were not designed to be this large.  They develop bone deformities and muscle diseases, and they even have trouble just walking or standing. On top of that, chickens are raised in factory farms in extremely distressing conditions, where they are locked in cramped cages and walk around in their own poop. Chickens are naturally social, intelligent and like to roam, but factory farms make this impossible possible. This all culminates in them being slaughtered just 47 days (on average) into their lifespan, a fraction of how long they would naturally live if they were not slaughtered.  Knowing this backstory is critical to understanding why consuming this type of meat is bad for our health. Chickens whose entire lives were extremely distressed reduces the quality of the meat, the nutritional composition and makes them more susceptible to infection. Vitamins, minerals and other nutrients could be altered in their composition and reduced in concentration. Sadly, this is the type of meat most of us are consuming with the widespread corruption of the food industry. Fortunately though, there are some solutions, but we first need to understand what labels to look for.

Natural (BAD)

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 think that natural is just a synonym for organic, but the two terms couldn't be more different.  What it really means: This is deception at its finest, as companies have capitalized on this buzzword as “natural” sounds like it would be healthy. It's vague terminology that we are psychologically manipulated with simply based on the way it sounds. Certified/Regulated?: This term is not regulated by any government agency, but it doesn’t really matter, because the term itself means nothing. Anyone can use it. Why this matters: The FDA doesn't have guidelines around the term "natural," so companies can continue using it liberally. From a health standpoint this matters, as this label is a natural pathway for us to consume the type of chickens we shouldn’t be eating.

No Added Hormones (NEUTRAL)

What we think it means: The chicken is never given added hormones or steroids at any point in its life.  What it really means: The above statement is actually accurate, but it’s deceiving. As we discussed, using any kind of artificial hormones or additives in poultry is forbidden by the FDA. Since no one can use antibiotics to begin with, why even mention this? This is just more evidence of psychological manipulation from food companies. Certified/Regulated?: Governments typically regulate the use of antibiotics and hormones in chicken production through various mechanisms. This includes regular inspections by government agencies, testing of chicken products, and enforcement of labeling and documentation requirements. Why this matters: Just like the “Natural” label, this label might make us compelled to buy the package of chicken, which might be a bad move for our health (unless it also includes the Organic label below). On a positive note, the fact that it's illegal to use hormones and antibiotics in chicken is an encouraging move by the government. However, they should be putting the same laws in place for meat production and cattle.

Certified Organic / USDA Organic (GOOD)

What we think it means: These chickens are the most healthy chickens we can buy. What it really means: This is true! Organic is the best way to go. Organic chickens are fed 100% organic feed, which is important because non-organic feed often includes harmful pesticides sprayed on crops. It also ensures that chickens are not confined inside continuously 100% of the time, which causes stress. Organic chickens also are slaughtered at 84 days (on average), which is nearly double the lifespan of non-organic chickens. Requirements can be found here. But it does hold some caveats, as organic chickens can still be raised in factory farm conditions. For full protection, look for the Organic label alongside Animal Welfare Approved, Certified Humane, or the Global Animal Partnership (steps 4, 5, 5+) label. Specifically with the Animal Welfare Approved label, it ensures the chicken was pasture-raised. Certified/Regulated?: Companies that have the certified organic label on their products are subject to regular inspections (annually; sometimes more) to verify compliance with the organic regulations. Inspectors check for things like chicken’s living conditions, feed sources and adhere to organic practices.  Companies are also recognized to maintain detailed records of their production practices and activities. If a violation is found, the company can face penalties, loss of certification and other enforcement actions.  Why this matters: An organic label is an important means of protecting our health, and ensuring that we are eating the highest quality, most nutritious chicken. This label, combined with Animal Welfare Approved, helps us avoid the type of chicken that leads to health issues. Like beef, most chicken served at restaurants, in addition to fast food chains, is NOT organic. Never buy from a food company, unless they state that they have organic meat and/or chicken.



Part of the poultry umbrella also are egg producers. In some cases, there may be a single business that produces both eggs and chicken for production. But in other cases, they are separate entities. Regardless if you are consuming the chicken, or eating the eggs they are producing, many of the same ethical problems still exist. Chickens that are raised in inhumane and extremely distressing conditions end up producing eggs with lower nutritional value for our health.  Here are some of the most popular egg labels on the market:

Cage-Free (BAD)

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: This is one of those classic "loophole" labels. Technically they might not be in a cage, but 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.

Free-Range (NEUTRAL)

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: This label is the "gold standard" for humanely-raising a chicken 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. But at farmer markets, oftentimes the farms will invite you to check out their farm and see their practices for yourself. Why this matters: Pasture 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.

Pasture Raised (GOOD)

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.

USDA Organic (GOOD)

What we think it means: The hens producing the eggs only consumed an organic diet throughout their lifetime. What it really means: This is true. The hens are fed an organic diet of feed produced without conventional pesticides or fertilizers. Additionally, organic eggs must come from "uncaged hens that are free to roam in their houses and have access to the outdoors," according to the USDA.  However, this doesn’t automatically mean humane conditions. Certified/Regulated?: Egg production undergoes the same regulation process as other industries for the USDA Organic label. Why this matters: While it's good that organic-raised chickens are fed an organic diet that ensures you’re not consuming second-hand pesticides, there's still no guarantee that they had extensive time outdoors. The best option is to buy eggs that say both USDA Organic and Pasture Raised. Buying from Vital Farms, whose eggs are in most grocery stores, would accomplish both of these goals.


Unfortunately, the seafood industry faces a unique set of challenges as well. Some of these challenges are naturally-occurring, because of the mercury streams that exist in seawater. Too much mercury consumption in humans has been linked with a whole host of health issues, including neurological problems, cardiovascular problems, nervous system damage, kidney damage and immune system suppression. This is mainly a problem when we eat larger fish (i.e. tuna) who have spent their entire lives consuming lots of smaller fish that also have high mercury levels. If we consume smaller fish directly (i.e. salmon, lobster), it is generally safer.  You can find a chart from the FDA with mercury levels here. But if you’ve watched Netflix’s hit documentary Seaspiracy, you know that mercury levels are not the only problem with fish. In the film, they examine the environmental toll of big seafood companies overfishing and corporations who skirt the rules. 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 government regulation. Not to mention the corruption that surrounds other industries also seeps into the seafood industry.  As we’ll learn, sometimes the way fish is produced on farms can be harmful to our health. The first four labels on this list pertain to the environment and sustainability, while the last four have implications directly on our health.

Pole and Line Caught (NEUTRAL)

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. 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. However, there's not someone out there checking every catch. According to an NPR report, "The MSC does not certify fisheries itself. Instead, a fishery that wants [this] 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 practice is more about the planet than our personal health. This method of fishing is way better for sharks, turtles, whales, and dolphins, as they don't get accidentally caught or killed in the process. It also helps prevent overfishing and ensures that tuna populations have time to grow and replenish.

Sustainably Caught (NEUTRAL)

What we think it means: Intuitively, we think this means something that is positive for the environment. Our consumption of this fish will not contribute to the decline of the species. What it really means: Our perception is in-line with the definition. Sustainably caught means the long-term future of the species and the health of the oceans are kept in mind. If the fish has a MSC-certified label, there's a decent chance that it can be classified as “sustainably” caught. Meaning.. the MSC is better than no label. 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. Nonetheless, the Ethical Consumer still reports that, "there are certified fisheries that are a long way from sustainability where seriously harmful practices continue." Why this matters: Currently 85% of fisheries in the world are exploited, resulting in more endangered fish populations. Again, the sustainability label is more about the environment than our personal health. Similar to the pole and line caught label, this helps fish populations rebuild.

Dolphin Safe (NEUTRAL)

What we think it means: Dolphins aren’t being harmed in our fishing practices. What it means: This is true! This label means that 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."

Friend of the Sea (NEUTRAL)

What we think it means: Something positive? What it really means: 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 Foodprint.org, 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. 

Responsibly Raised / Farmed (GOOD)

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, but as we’ll learn from the next label, it doesn’t necessarily mean healthy for you.

Farm-Raised (BAD)

What we think it means: The fish were raised on a farm, not the ocean. What it really means: Seafood that is raised in controlled and confined areas, compared to the free-range of the ocean. Unfortunately, there are a wide variety of health concerns with eating farm-raised fish.  Depending on the farm, the fish might endure the same inhumane conditions as chickens do. Overcrowded tanks and poor water quality often leads to increased stress and compromised immune systems. This might mean that companies feed sick fish antibiotics.  Farm-raised fish can also be exposed to harmful pesticides and food companies will also give some fish (i.e. salmon) harmful food additives to enhance their color. Not to mention that some fish might be genetically modified. All these things are terrible for our health. Certified/Regulated?: Advancements in aquaculture practices and regulations have led to improvements in the health and safety of farm-raised fish. But a package that simply says “farm-raised” tells you nothing about their practices, just that it was raised on a farm. Additionally, this distinction is not subject to the same regulations that the “Responsibly Raised / Farmed” label is. Why this matters: There are a lot of health risks that can come from eating something that is merely labeled “farm-raised”, mostly from contamination, food additives and antibiotics. Avoid this label.

Non-GMO Project Seafood (GOOD)

What we think it means: The Seafood has not been genetically modified. What it really means: 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: GMOs are potentially harmful for human health. At best, they are experimental and we have no idea what they’re doing to us. 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.

Wild-Caught (GOOD)

What we think it means: The fish was caught in the ocean. What it really means: As the MSC explains, “Fishers catch wild seafood in natural marine environments such as oceans, lakes and rivers.” As the more natural way to get our seafood, wild-caught seafood has a number of health benefits. It ensures that the fish has not been given antibiotics or additives, nor has been exposed to pesticides. Being out at sea, it also eats a natural diet.  Certified/Regulated?: Like the “farm-raised” label, seafood that is marked as “wild-caught” is just a distinction. The Economist reports that seafood traceability is also becoming popular as a method of regulation, stating that “DNA tracing can be used to prevent seafood fraud and mislabelling. Researchers can independently check seafood stock using this technology, enabling buyers to question suppliers immediately.” The FDA is primarily responsible for auditing and inspections. Why this matters: This is a label you should be looking for with all of your seafood, as it is the least risky for your health. Ultimately, though, we can’t ignore the mercury part of this conversation. Opt for smaller, wild-caught seafood when you eat fish. There are many options here, including shrimp, scallops, salmon and claims. Avoid the most commonly larger fish, even if they’re wild-caught, like tuna, sea-bass and swordfish.


When it comes to vegetables and fruits, there are usually just two different types of distinctions: conventional and organic. This makes the buying process rather simple, compared to all the labels for other food groups. From a health standpoint, the difference between the two is enormous.  This is because harmful pesticides are sprayed on our crops across the country to control pests, bacteria, mold and fungus. How bad are these for our health? Well, in 2016 over 11,000 people sued Monsanto, one of the chief offenders, because they developed non-Hodgkin's lymphoma from Monsanto’s pesticides. Long-term pesticide exposure has also been linked to cancer and Parkinson’s disease.  But before we break down organic versus conventional, lets briefly cover the other claims made in produce. They include things like:
    • Triple-Washed
    • Non-GMO
    • Fresh
    • Excellent Source Of… (i.e. Vitamin C)
    • Good Source Of… (i.e. Vitamin A)
 Most of these claims are just for marketing purposes.  All fruits and vegetables are a good source of something, obviously. There is also no such thing as GMO greens, so the only reason they include that label is to reel you in to make more sales. GMO labels are only relevant for certain vegetables, including things like corn, beets, zucchini and yellow summer squash. Seeing the term “Triple-Washed” can make you feel confident your food is clean, but it is not a regulated term. As seen in the Netflix documentary Poisoned, this does not guarantee that pathogens won’t make their way onto your foods or vegetables. For this reason, they recommend not buying packaged greens. Lastly, the “Fresh” label is somewhat misleading and another buzzword. According to the FDA this term “means that the food is in its raw state and has not been frozen or subjected to any form of thermal processing or any other form of preservation.”  However, the term does not tell you WHEN the greens were harvested, in addition to the fact that those that were washed in a mild chlorine solution can be labeled fresh.  With all that in mind, let’s address the three labels that are critical to understand in order to avoid ingesting harmful pesticides.

USDA Organic / Organic (GOOD)

What we think it means: That the vegetables and fruits are healthy? What it really means: To get the USDA organic label, farmers have to adhere to a stricter set of guidelines that significantly reduce the amount of pesticide residue. This protects our health. Consumer Reports explains, “Using non-chemical methods to prevent insects, weeds, and plant diseases from harming crops is one of the basic tenets of organic farming. Pesticides can be used only after prevention methods have failed, and even then, federal law bars organic farmers from using any synthetic chemical pesticides that could be harmful to human health or the environment.” While this method is not perfect, it gives us much more security than the alternative. Certified/Regulated?: As with the USDA Organic label for other food groups, companies have to undergo inspections at least annually. Why this matters: As we mentioned before, long-term pesticide exposure has been linked to a whole host of diseases. While the regulation behind this label is far from perfect, it is much safer than the alternative labels below of conventional and pesticide-free. Especially when it comes to the Dirty Dozen in produce. Not all farms can afford the USDA Organic label, but at local farmer’s markets, you can (generally) trust when someone claims their produce is organic. Some will even invite you out to their farm to back it up. One additional note that is important for the grocery store: fruits and vegetables that are not in packages will usually just say “organic”.

Conventional (BAD)

What we think it means: Vegetables and fruits grown from natural and/or conventional farming practices. It comes across as a positive term, but this couldn’t be farther from reality.  What it really means: They use widely-popularized farming practices, especially large food companies, that are harmful for our health. Consider that there are nearly 900 pesticides approved for use in conventional farming, compared to just 30 synthetic pesticides that are approved in organic farming (after all other methods were exhausted). Some companies will also genetically modify their crops, which is an additional trigger for human health. Certified/Regulated?: Even with conventional foods, there is still a cap on how much pesticide residue is allowed. The FDA monitors produce for pesticide residues and takes action if levels exceed established tolerances. But as stated in the Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA), all that is guaranteed is that at least one-third of all farms will be inspected annually. This means that two-thirds of farms go unregulated, sometimes for years at a time. Obviously, this is very concerning. Why this matters: Consuming pesticides are not good for our health. The data on long-term exposure does not lie, especially if you are eating conventional vegetables over a long period of time. Some may argue that consuming trace amounts of pesticides is not a big deal, but why even take that chance? The reality is that disease is a possibility when we are exposed to pesticides, as seen in the Monsanto case. It’s also worth noting that many “healthy” salad chains use all conventional ingredients. Beware of this. Go organic.

Pesticide-Free (NEUTRAL)

What we think it means: There are zero pesticides or pesticide residue within the food. What it really means: The term is largely ambiguous. As Consumer Reports puts it, “Does it mean that no pesticides were used in the production of the greens or that there is no pesticide residue remaining on greens that were produced with the use of the chemicals? There’s no real way to know.” Certified/Regulated?: It’s not a label that is regulated by the FDA. Nonprofits that help test for these labels include SCS Global Services and the Clean Label Project. These certifications are largely new, and still have the caveat “within the limits of laboratory detection.” Why this matters: For now, disregard this label until more regulation is put in place. USDA Organic is still the gold standard for protecting against residue and the matter is too important to take a chance.


For many of us, bread is another staple of our diet. Some of us love devouring the bread plate at a restaurant. Others enjoy it as part of a sandwich at lunchtime. But as with everything else in this list, food companies cut corners in the making of bread. At the expense of our health, the way they make bread strategically increases their profits. They will then take advantage of the fact that we don’t know much about the manufacturing process and put out deceiving “healthy-sounding” labels. This mainly comes down to the  conversation around whole grains versus refined grains. As Harvard explains, “Whole grains offer a “complete package” of health benefits, unlike refined grains, which are stripped of valuable nutrients in the refining process.” White bread is cheaper and largely made up of refined grains. Never buy this. In the worst cases, manufacturers will infuse the bread with harmful additives and unnecessarily ingredients to further cut costs. The other aspect of conversation comes down to dietary needs, and those who have developed sensitivities or allergies to gluten.  Here are some things to look out for.

Whole Grains (NEUTRAL)

What we think it means: Something… good? I think I heard somewhere that whole grains are good for your health. What it really means: This is supposed to mean that the bread's flour is made from the entire grain kernel—the bran, endosperm, and germ. Nothing was stripped from the manufacturing process. Some products have stamps that indicate whether it has 100% whole grain, 50% whole grain or simply “whole grain” which must include some whole grains. Certified/Regulated?: The FDA says that if a product is labeled as "100% whole grain," it must meet the following criteria:
    1. All the grain ingredients in the product must be whole grains.
    2. The product must contain only the bran, germ, and endosperm of the grain in the same proportion as they exist in the intact grain.
    3. The product must not contain any refined grains.
 Why this matters: Refined grains are not good for our long-term health and can increase your risk of a whole host of diseases, per Harvard. Your best bet here is to always go for breads that say they have 100% whole grains or whose first ingredient is listed as organic whole wheat flour or organic whole grain flour.

Whole Wheat (NEUTRAL)

What we think it means: Is this just a synonym for whole grain? What it really means: Whole wheat and whole grain are often used interchangeably, but they have slightly different meanings when it comes to labels. Wheat is a type of grain. But there are many types of grains, including wheat, barley, oats, rice, corn, quinoa, and more. But just because a product says it is whole wheat, that does not necessarily mean it doesn’t include refined grains. For this distinction, it must say 100% Whole Wheat. Certified/Regulated?: According to the FDA guidelines, for something to say 100% Whole Wheat, it must mean that it was made entirely from whole wheat ingredients and does not contain any refined flour or other grains. Why this matters: As we’ve mentioned, refined grains are not good for us. Just because something is whole wheat, does not mean it is automatically good for you. If you want to eat wheat bread, look for products that are 100% Whole Wheat, and also USDA Organic.

Multigrain (NEUTRAL)

What we think it means: It includes multiple grains in the bread, such as both wheat and oat.  What it really means: This is true! But it says nothing about whether those grains are whole grains or refined grains. Some packages could say 100% multigrain, but that could still be problematic because of loose regulations. Certified/Regulated?: The term "100% multigrain" is not as strictly regulated by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) as terms like "100% whole wheat" or "100% whole grain." Why this matters: Whether it says multigrain or 100% multigrain bread, It’s important that we look at the back of the package. You can identify if something has refined grains if it just says “wheat flour” or “white flour”, without the word “whole” before it.

Gluten-Free (GOOD)

What we think it means: The product contains no gluten. What it really means: Gluten is a protein that is found in the wheat plant. Breads that say they are gluten-free means that it does not contain gluten. Certified/Regulated?: To have this label, the FDA says the product must contain less than 20 parts per million (ppm) of gluten. Why this matters: It matters primarily if you have sensitivities or allergies to gluten, which many people in the population do. If the product does not contain gluten, it must say so. Otherwise, you are eating bread that has gluten in it. Sourdough bread may be a good alternative due to the fermentation process, but you will have to trial it out and see.

USDA Organic (GOOD)

What we think it means: Bread with this label is the most healthy bread that we could buy. What it really means: At least 95% of the ingredients in the bread are certified organic, meaning the bread does not contain synthetic fertilizers, synthetic pesticides, GMOs, sewage sludge or irradiation.  Certified/Regulated?: As with all food groups, the FDA conducts inspections and audits at least annually for USDA Organic labeling. Why this matters: Like with every other food group, we should always strive to buy bread that is organic. But that comes with a caveat, and that is that the product also must be made of whole grains. Keep in mind that there are different levels of organic labeling. Some packages may indicate 100% Organic, while others may just say Organic or Made with Organic. Always go for the USDA Organic label. However, local bakers may not be able to afford the USDA Organic certification, and still may make their bread organic, so you’ll have to ask them and trust them at their word. Local bakers often frequent local farmer’s markets.


Most packaged foods are extremely unhealthy, yet they are stocked to the brim in grocery stores. They’re often filled with toxic food additives and artificial ingredients, hidden in the ingredient list. We’ll get to that in the next section, but here we primarily deal with the bogus claims that are made on the front of food packages. Food companies will use popular buzzwords to deceive us, and make us think that their product is healthy for us. Many times, we fall for these claims without turning over the package, and simply throw it in our shopping cart. Knowledge is power, and understanding why food companies use the following labels will equip you to make better decisions at the grocery store.

Low-Fat or Fat-Free (BAD)

What we think it means: There's no fat content, and that's a good thing, because…."fat is bad?"  What it really means: It’s a marketing label that capitalizes off the obesity epidemic and lures you into the idea that fat is bad. While excess fat is bad, fat itself is not. Fat is actually essential for our functioning as an energy source. In fact, as Harvard puts it, there are even certain types of fats that lower disease (monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats). Certified/Regulated?: Per FDA regulatory requirements that 100% Fat Free label must contain less than 0.5 g fat per 100 g. But again, eating fat-free or low-fat does not ensure you will become healthier. Why this matters: Major food companies make “low-fat” or “fat-free” products that still have a ton of calories and sugar, which turn into fat in our bodies anyway. It’s a lateral move for our health, not a step forward. Not to mention the product they are selling usually has low-quality ingredients and a ton of food additives anyway. Ignore this label.

Low-Calorie (NEUTRAL)

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. Certified/Regulated?: For something to be considered low-calorie, it must have The food have a serving size of less than 30 grams and has fewer than 40 calories per serving. Why this matters: A product may be lower in calories, but it 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 just as harmful – or even more harmful for our bodies. 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. Ignore this label, as it means nothing beneficial for your health.

Sugar-Free (BAD)

What we think it means: There is no sugar in the product whatsoever. What it really means: Sugar-free is often a label for 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.  Certified/Regulated?: This claim is allowed if the product contains less than 0.5g of sugar per serving or the product contains no ingredient that is a sugar or contains sugars, unless this is explained in the ingredients section. Why this matters: While it’s true that too much sugar is really bad for your health, people often eat sugar-free products thinking they're guilt-free. But substitute sweeteners still can lead to digestive issues and kill beneficial probiotics in our gut, and also mess with our insulin levels. If you’re going to have sugar, limit your intake, and only consume organic cane sugar, organic coconut sugar, or products that have natural sweeteners like organic honey, organic dates or organic maple syrup.

Heart Healthy (BAD)

What we think it means: The food is good for our heart. What it really means: In 1995, the American Heart Association introduced a labeling program called the Heart Check that allowed certain foods to be labeled "heart healthy." 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."  Certified/Regulated?: To meet the criteria for the label, all of these things must be true for the product:
    • 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 g
    • Cholesterol: 20 mg or less
 Why this matters: The Heart Healthy claim is just a marketing ploy that masks how harmful products like Honey Nut Cheerios really are. While General Mills has made a fortune off this claim, the reality is that most cereals are loaded with food additives that are terrible for us. Ignore this label, as it’s not going to give any added benefit to you.

Fruit Flavored (BAD)

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. Certified/Regulated?: All that is required is that if a product is labeled “strawberry-flavored”, it should contain a flavor derived from strawberries. However, in this example the product could have just trace amounts of strawberry or strawberry puree.  Why this matters: Parents and vulnerable children are often preyed on and targeted by food companies through claims like this. As a parent, you might think that buying a product that says “fruit-flavored” means it’s a healthy alternative to giving your child real fruit. Food companies push this idea 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. Do not buy products that have this label.


The ingredients list on the back of the package is arguably the most important thing we need to learn about reading food labels. Most Americans are unaware that most of our food products are ultra-processed, which means they have been so heavily altered that the product resembles nothing of real food anymore. We don’t often think about how it’s possible for a food to have shelf life for many months or even years. In large part, it’s because the food has been so heavily processed, and infused with so many food additives. This is where the conversation gets really ugly. Food additives, which are also known as artificial ingredients or food preservatives, are “chemicals added to foods to keep them fresh or to enhance their color, flavor or texture,” per BetterHealth. They have absolutely zero nutritional value. Since we don’t turn over the package and look at the ingredients nearly enough, we live unaware of all the chemicals we are ingesting on a daily basis. Here are some principles for learning how to read ingredient lists.

Identifying Artificial Ingredients & Food Additives

One of the most important things we need to master when reading food labels is the art of identifying artificial ingredients. Most Americans live unaware that many toxic food additives (which are essentially chemicals) are allowed in our food that are banned in Europe. Even though the United States has not done the same, Whole Foods has banned over 250+ ingredients from any products they sell at their store. By shopping there, you’ll save a lot of trouble with this entire list. Whole Foods isn’t perfect, however, as not all their products are organic. So how do we identify these additives, especially if we’re not educated on the matter? A good rule of thumb is that if you are not familiar with an ingredient, it probably isn’t good for you. Organic orange, organic flour or organic chocolate as ingredients are easy to understand. But food additives sound like chemicals, because they are. Food author Michael Pollan once mused: "Don't buy products with any ingredients you can't easily pronounce."  A good case study for this, in the positive sense, would be Hu Kitchen chocolate. Their ingredient list is as follows: organic fairtrade cacao, organic unrefined coconut sugar, organic grass-fed milk, organic fairtrade cocoa butter. You are eating all ingredients you understand, everything is organic and there are only four ingredients. And did we mention that their chocolate is delicious?

No More Than 5 Ingredients

The more processed a food is and the more ingredients it includes, the less nutritional value it holds. A huge red flag is when the ingredient list is 10 or 15 items long, which is usually the case for many of the most popular food products on the market.  A general rule of thumb is to not buy a product if it has more than five ingredients. Make sure all of those ingredients are organic, as well. Ingredients are listed in descending order by weight. This means that if sugar is the first ingredient, it’s the primary thing that the product is made of. So pay attention to what the top three ingredients are of any product that you buy.  A good case study for all of these rules is an Oreos package. There’s about 14 different ingredients in Oreos and the first ingredient is sugar. None of the ingredients are organic. There are multiple food additives included. Not to mention that Oreos are supposed to be made of chocolate, but cocoa and chocolate are the last ingredients on the list. This is why Oreos are a walking health hazard.



At first glance, this could feel like information overload. But as we mentioned in the beginning, when you put this into practice, over time it becomes intuitive. Psychologically, you’ve now trained yourself to sniff out the deceiving labels, and buy the ones that lead to the best health outcomes. Of course, this all takes intentionality and effort, but what’s the alternative? Letting food companies manipulate us, and eating foods that will lead to negative health effects down the line? The truth is that our future self will thank us for doing the work. And remember, always buy organic. For more, click here to visit our Nutrition Hub.


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