Making Sense Out of Supermarket Labels

Sorry for today’s delayed post.  I am leaving for Shanghai to visit my boyfriend (who is currently living there) in a couple of weeks and I feel a little overwhelmed with all of the things I need to get done before I leave.  Last week was shots…Hepatitis A, typhoid, an MMR adult booster, a Tdap adult booster and a flu shot…ouch!

Anyway, onto today’s topic.  Every Sunday I go to the gym and lift heavy stuff (including lifting my body off the ground…very heavy), then I go to the Whole Foods down the street and do my weekly grocery shopping.  I am lucky in that I have a very nice, brand new Whole Foods.  I love the vast array of organic products, non-GMO products, grass-fed beef and pastured chicken and dairy products.  But what does all of this mean, and what is “worth” the cost?  To some degree, this is a personal decision.  We all know that “organic” can be synonymous with “expensive.”  Only you can decide how much of your budget can be allocated to food.  But do remember that this is your body…and food is its fuel.  What you put in it absolutely, positively does matter.  Also keep in mind that we in the US spend a smaller percentage of our income on food than most other countries.  Here is a chart for you:

Lower numbers mean that those countries spend more of their income on non food items, not necessarily a good thing. That includes housing, but in general it means non essentials.

I like that comment above the chart that much of the non-food purchases are for “non-essentials.”  I have had people say to me before that they couldn’t afford to buy organic and grass-fed.  And while there are people who (sadly) do not have the resources to purchase this higher quality food, I would venture to say that this is not true of most of my readers.  How many cars are in your garage?  How many cable channels do you have?  How many cell phones are there in your household?  Do you go on vacation?  Okay, have I made my point?  Certainly how much you spend on food is a personal choice, but just don’t tell me you can’t afford it.  Most likely you can.  Lecture is over.

So what do all the food labels mean and what is more important?  Again, some of that will come down to personal choice.  Today I will try to cover a few you might encounter.

Natural vs. Organic vs. Non-GMO

I think it is important that everyone is aware of what the word “natural” or “all natural” does (or does not) mean.  In a nutshell, it means almost nothing.  That’s right, almost nothing.  It really isn’t regulated.  The FDA hasn’t actually set a definition of it, although it generally appears that it should indicate a food that does not include added colors, artificial flavors or synthetic substances.  So certainly that’s something.  But beyond that what it really means is up to the individual producer.  In other words, it is a lot about marketing and maybe little to nothing about the healthfulness of the product.  So beware.  “Natural” does not necessarily equate to good.  “Organic” on the other hand is regulated by the Department of Agriculture and has a strict set of rules required of the producer.  Buying a product labeled as “certified organic” means the following:

The USDA National Organic Program (NOP) defines organic as follows:

Organic food is produced by farmers who emphasize the use of renewable resources and the conservation of soil and water to enhance environmental quality for future generations. Organic meat, poultry, eggs, and dairy products come from animals that are given no antibiotics or growth hormones. Organic food is produced without using most conventional pesticides; fertilizers made with synthetic ingredients or sewage sludge; bioengineering; or ionizing radiation. Before a product can be labeled “organic,” a Government-approved certifier inspects the farm where the food is grown to make sure the farmer is following all the rules necessary to meet USDA organic standards. Companies that handle or process organic food before it gets to your local supermarket or restaurant must be certified, too.

To make things just a little more confusing products can be labeled “100% organic,” which is what you would expect.  Something labeled just “organic” must have a minimum of 95% organic ingredients; and something labeled “made with organic ingredients” must contain at least 70% organic ingredients.  A label of organic is going to help ensure you are not consuming genetically modified ingredients (this is something you should really care about, despite the fact that our government doesn’t think this matters…see my post here ~ I am convinced there will be a day when the big story is how all the GMO crops are very, very dangerous).  Finally, you may have noticed some products containing a “Non-GMO” label (I’ve seen it on tortilla chips).  While not the same as organic in that the product could have been raised using pesticides, you at least have the reassurance that the product does not contain GMOs (genetically modified organisms).  For more information, see “Non-GMO Project.”


Unfortunately another one that is trickier than it might sound.  Grass-fed is used in reference to beef.  Cows are ruminants that are meant to feed on GRASS.  Except in the US, where we have decided to change their natural diet to one of corn, soy and rBGH (bovine growth hormone) so that we end up with sick cows that need to be fed copious amounts of antibiotics & produce beef that has a vastly different (read “inferior”) nutritional profile to that of grass-fed beef.  So you really, really want to seek out that grass-fed beef.  However, as with so many things in this country, labels are not necessarily a guarantee of anything:

Truly grassfed animals are fed a diet of grass or other forage throughout their lives and have constant access to pasture or range. They are not given any grain feed, animal byproducts, synthetic hormones, or antibiotics to promote growth or to prevent disease. Unfortunately, some “grassfed” labels do not guarantee that animals were pastured or pasture-raised – for example, farmers using the USDA grassfed logo can confine cattle on feedlots while feeding trucked in cut grass or forage. To ensure animals were not confined look for the American Grassfed Association logo, which verifies a 100 percent forage diet and ensures that animals are raised on pasture with no confinement, no antibiotics and no added hormones. For more information see AWA’s Grassfed Primer,…[see here for more information on Animal Welfare Approved ~ generally carried at Whole Foods Markets].

Ideally you want something that says “100% grass-fed” or “Grass-finished” (which means the same thing).  Sometimes you will see something that is “grass-fed, grain-finished” which means it was finished off on corn, probably in a feedlot…not as ideal.  Because there don’t seem to be a lot of real rules about how the cattle is to be raised you might need to educate yourself (e.g. by taking a look at AWA’s website linked above ~ I also like Eat Wild) and/or asking questions.  You might also find a local source for your beef (and other meat and poultry) where you can actually visit the farm where the cattle (and chickens, pigs, etc) are being raised and ask your questions directly of the farmer.  Here is a great resource for finding grass-fed meat, eggs and dairy (these kinds of places often work on a “share” system where you buy a certain quantity e.g. monthly; many will also provide different pick up locations, so this might be a more viable option than you would expect ~ it’s not like you have to go out to the farm each week to buy your meat and poultry).

Free-range, Pastured or Pasture-raised

This would seem to imply that the animal in question has been raised outdoors on pasture, but as with everything else (or so it seems) there is no legal definition or regulations with regards to this term.  You will often see if used in relation to poultry and would be similar to the term “free-range.”  If you have seen “Food, Inc.” you will know that for something to be labeled “free-range” there are some rules about the chickens actually having access to the outdoors, but it is a pretty meaningless term.  The chickens are often housed in enormous facilities with tiny doors on either end….making them “free-range” in that the chickens technically have access to the outdoors…it doesn’t actually mean they go outdoors or that they could realistically even get outdoors.  So again, you need to educate yourself.  In my blog post “How Good are Your Eggs and Dairy” I provided resources that allow you to assess the quality of eggs and dairy that might be labeled “pastured” or “pasture-raised” (these resources include information about how much time the animals actually spend in the pasture).   I do buy “pastured” butter from Organic Valley (Kerry Gold, while not labeled as such, apparently is also “pastured”) and Vital Farms eggs ($6 a dozen at Whole Foods ~ you get what you pay for though).

All of this is meant, as always, to help educate you and provide you with the information and resources to make your own decisions.  While I think organic, grass-fed and pastured chickens and dairy are important, we all need to make our own decisions.  Even if you make a small step towards improving your food quality, it is a positive step.  For more information about labeling (and a resource for much of the information contained in this post) see “What Do Food Labels Really Mean?

About Lisa Van Dore

I have lived in Sherborn, Dover and most recently North Walpole, for a total of 15 years (and counting). Having recently been through the process of selling a home and buying (and renovating) a new one, I understand the conflicting emotions of excitement and anxiety inherent in the process, whether you are a seller or buyer, whether this is your first home purchase or your tenth. I have a BA from the University of Michigan and an MBA from Indiana University. My early career found me working as a CPA, and later as the controller of Crate & Barrel. More recently I spent seven years running my own personal training business. I understand the hard work and dedication necessary to build a business and a reputation...most of my personal training clients came to me by referral and my first client was still with me when I decided to leave personal training. This speaks to the level of effort I put forth for my clients, week after week. On a more personal note, I raced triathlon for seven years and more recently completed my first half marathon. In my free time I enjoy cooking, reading, Maine, hiking and, in the fall, following college teams are the University of Michigan (Go Blue!) and Texas Christian University (Go Frogs!).
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