First off, I hope you are always reading the labels and know what you are putting into your body, it’s incredibly important. But then you say OK, I’m looking at this label, but I don’t know what all this crap means! No problem. I shall tell you.
That big box full of words and numbers and percentages and stuff on the back of your packaged foods? Yeah, you should look at all that. I’m not really concerned about the calories or the percentages and recommended daily doses and all that. The most important thing to look at is the ingredient list. This tells you what your food is actually made of! You want things you’ve actually heard of. Things like meat, vegetables, salt and oregano. You know, actual food. Bizarro chemicals, partially hydrogenated crapola, high fructose poison… this isn’t food, this is toxic frankenfood that makes you fat and sick.
Dem Sneaky Carbs
Now that you’ve found something that is actually food, you can look at the other thing in the label that really matters: the carbs. Food manufacturers love to sneak in more carbs that you could ever reasonably expect. And remember, excessive carbs make us fat and disease-y. Anything over 20 carbs per serving (minus fiber, which isn’t digestible) isn’t ideal. And if you’re aggressively trying to lose weight, you want your total carb count per day to be around 20-50 grams per day.
Food Words are Hard Ya’ll
Food labels are covered in ‘Low Fat!’ and ‘All Natural! and ‘Free Range!’ and a zillion other things. First off, some of these words are totally useless and stupid. Other words are very meaningful, and if food purveyors use these inappropriately, they can get in loads of trouble. Working in advertising, I’ve seen a lot about food brands struggling with what to put on their labels, as the whole thing is a crazy legal nightmare. There are a fair amount of organizations that will ‘certify’ food to be organic, non GMO, etc. Many of these organizations are trustworthy and wonderful. However, they are very expense. So that fledgling mom and pop almond butter brand that may actually be totally organic, paleo, and awesome may end up not being able to put any of those fancy certifications on the label because they can’t afford it. And since many of the more healthy, Paleo approved foods are from small businesses, this makes things a bit more complicated. This is why you read the ingredients, shop at the right stores, and bust out that handy dandy Google when you want to know more!
Here’s a Quick Guide to Food Labels:
100% Grass Fed
This is for your four legged edible friends – cows, bison, and sheep. 100% grass fed is the bomb diggity. And that percentage matters. Sans 100% means the animals may be ‘grain finished,’ which fattens them up and makes their flavor more mild, but compromises the health of the animal, and yours.
This is what you want your eggs, chicken, duck, turkey and pork to be. It means they spent their whole lives out in the open eating bugs and worms and getting healthy feed. It means it has been certified by the Food Service and Inspection Service. This is legit and generally only found at Whole Foods, Farmer’s Markets, and actual farms. I get pastured eggs from my local Ralph’s market. They aren’t as cheap, but they are amazing! Believe me, you do NOT want to know what farmers do to conventional chickens. It’s horrifying. I prefer to spend the extra few bucks for significantly more health benefits, and to be able to sleep at night.
This is the creme della creme for organic labeling. It’s run by the government, but shockingly, is actually really trustworthy. USDA organic means non-GMO, no pesticides, antibiotics, hormones or other horrors. It means livestock are fed organic food as well and have some access to outdoors. But don’t assume organic meat is grass fed or pastured unless it specifies those attributes. USDA organic is most important for your fruits, veggies, coconut oil, herbs, and spices.
This is the strongest certification for Non-GMO foods. There is great debate about GMO foods. I for one would like to allow others to do experiments on themselves to see how the human body responds to GMO food. I prefer to err on the side of caution by eating food that hasn’t had its genes spliced and diced to make it cheaper and more profitiable for food corporations whenever possible. However, this label does not mean organic, or pastured, or wild or anything else. It just means not genetically modified in the very narrow definition it’s given by this organization.
Gluten Free/No Gluten
The government recently made this a real label in 2013. It means food can’t have more than 20 parts per million of gluten, which is barely anything, unless you have Celiac, which is a real biotch. Generally only processed foods that may normally have gluten use this label. They ain’t putting gluten free on eggs and apples even though they obviously don’t have gluten. So this isn’t a free pass for healthy eating just because it doesn’t contain gluten. It could still be full of bad fats, carbs and the like.
Wild is important for seafood. We want wild caught salmon and wild caught shrimp. Atlantic Salmon means farmed salmon, which significantly compromises the health benefits of eating fish.
There are other good certifications not listed here. If you want to check out if a label is legit, Google dat shiznit.
McDonald’s french fries are labeled as natural. In other words, this label is totally meaningless. However, some good products use this label. Because it’s meaningless. No one can sue them over it. Carl’s Jr. and Hardee’s are labeling their miraculous grass fed fast food burgers (which really do TASTE grass fed), as all natural. Why? My guess is that just in case they mix some non-grass fed meat in there, no one can sue them. I swear, like 90% of the decisions brands make involve trying to avoid getting sued. Welcome to America folks. Generally speaking though, if a food has this label, it’s better than nothing but not anything to get excited about.
This is not a sue-able label and therefore fairly meaningless. Food manufacturers love to label pork as hormone free with a little asterisk next to it. And then when you read the asterisk explanation it says it’s illegal to give hormones to pigs. What a load of crap.
Free Range/Cage Free/Omega 3 Eggs
While buying eggs with this label versus the cheapest label free eggs is most likely better, this term is still kind of meaningless. The chickens theoretically have some occasional access to some sad dirt patch sometimes maybe. When I tried to research the Trader Joe’s free range, organic eggs, I found that they have to remove the beaks of the chickens to prevent them from hurting each other. Meaning they cram so many chickens together in one space they have to remove their beaks to avoid them constantly stabbing each other. How the heck do they feed them without beaks? I don’t want to know. And these are the more expensive, higher quality eggs available at Trader Joe’s. It’s so sad.
Yet those chickens are still much better than the hundred chickens they cram into one cage at conventional egg and poultry farms which is DEPLORABLE. Their eggs are watery and sucky, devoid of nutrients, and more likely to have salmonella. Omega 3 labeling means they gave the chickens flax seeds. Chickens aren’t designed to eat flax seeds and it makes them inflammatory. Don’t buy those.
Natural vs Artificial Flavors
The differentiating factors between these are absurdly arbitrary. And if food manufacturers have to add these mystery flavors to their food, it means their food is low quality and processed. Stay away.
Low Fat/Fat Free = High carb in most cases. #Nope.
Know You Know How to Know Better
No more claiming ignorance over what’s in your food. You’ve got all the info and tools necessary to know what is going in your body, and then becoming a part of your body. Choose to make your body strong and healthy.