How to Navigate Food Labels


In the spirit of being more informed and mindful grocery shoppers, below is some information on food labels to simplify the experience for you. As you begin, continue, or refine your lifestyle habits regarding nutrition, being able to understand what the common food labels really stand for is important. Most of them aim to convince you of buying something by sounding healthy and beneficial, but this is not necessarily the case. The Dailyburn and Mindbodygreen offer great insight into this subject.

While food labels sometimes suggest a beneficial property, the rule of thumb is to check the ingredient list.

“I first teach how to read food ingredient labels,” said Lebby Salinas, Holistic Health & Wellness Coach, a.k.a. The Fooducator®. “Second I teach how NOT to have to read food ingredient labels because REAL FOOD does not have ingredient labels. However, if you do eat food that has a label, [it is] best to [stick to] 5 or less ingredients and only ingredients you can pronounce and are made from other real food ingredients.”

So let’s have a look at what some common labels mean, including ethical implications of some.

  • “Fortified with” means that the manufacturer of the product added vitamins or minerals. This implies that those nutrients are not present naturally, but fortification does not necessarily make a product more nutritious or good for your health. It is best to apply the rule of thumb of checking the ingredient list to find out what other things have been added.
  • “Certified Humane” is a label certified by a nonprofit that has strict standards requiring that animals have access to fresh water, quality feed, and abundant roaming space. This label also means that meat is hormone-free and antibiotic-free
  • “Cage-Free” vs “Pasture-Raised.” When it comes to eggs, the labels are a bit confusing. Cage-free does not mean that chickens are roaming free, but only that chickens were raised in open industrial barn rooms that house hundreds of crammed chickens, as opposed to in tiny crates. Pasture-raised eggs are laid by hens that get to spend their days outside on pastures. These eggs tend to have deep orange-colored yolks, which is a good indication of health quality.
  • “Natural” does not mean much for the most part, as this label is not clearly defined by the FDA. Manufacturers may include this label if a food item has no added colors, artificial flavors, or synthetic ingredients.
  • Organic foods may be labeled in different ways. Listed in order of quality, organic labels include “USDA Organic,” “Certified Organic,” or “100% Organic.” The USDA Organic label is the most trusted, according to the sources above.
  • “Non-GMO” means that a food was produced without the use of genetically modified organisms. While research has consistently supported the notion that GMO foods are safe, many people still opt to avoid them.
  • “Gluten-Free” stamped products do not have any gluten-containing grains in them, such as wheat, barley, or rye. However, it is important to note that manufacturers can use this label on their products if it contains less than 20 ppm gluten, according to Daily Burn. So again, check the ingredient list to make sure that a gluten-free product is free of any grains that contain gluten, or if it is processed in a facility that produces them, as they could be cross-contaminated.
  • “Sugar-Free” may be the most deceiving label. This label typically means that real sugar has been left out but replaced with an artificial sweetener. This is NOT healthier, and all types of sweeteners (agave, coconut, raw, stevia, etc.) have the same chemical response in the brain: pleasure, addiction, reward. If your goal is to avoid sugar altogether, look for the stamps “No Added Sweeteners,” and always check your ingredient list. Different types of sugars (saccharides) usually end in -ose, such as glucose and sucrose, but maltodextrin or sorbitol are also sugars.


While this is not an exhaustive list, it is sufficient to identify a pattern. Food companies are using labels that make them sound like they are on our side, but the labels are actually deceiving and hide a truth we are usually disappointed by. Surely new labels and stamps, certifications, and standards will emerge, and we will continue to be proactive in understanding what we are buying. What we feed our bodies has the most significant effect on our health and wellbeing. Let’s be kind and respectful to it, and nourish it with real, wholesome foods, as nature intended.