Updated: Feb 14
A grocery store is a place we all have to frequent; whether it's online or in person, we can't go more than a week or two without needing to visit. Nowadays, the options in our grocery stores are vast; we have shelf after shelf dedicated to the same kind of foods just made by different brands. If you're someone going to the grocery store looking for healthier options for you or your family, it's especially overwhelming. All the packages have labels like "natural," "whole grain" "free-range," "100% whole wheat," "organic" it all sounds good, but what do any of those phrases actually mean, and how should you know which are the best options and which are not worth the money?
If you ever find yourself feeling stressed or just confused by the labels at the grocery store, or spending more money because a food label makes it sound better for you, this blog post is for you. We're going to break down the common phrases you see at the grocery store, and talk about what they actually mean!
Let's start with the word organic. We mostly see this when it comes to produce and other whole foods, but you can see this on packaged foods as well. According to the USDA there are four different types of organic labels which include:
Made with organic ingredients
Specific organic ingredients
Confusing, I know. Let's dive into what they all mean. !00% organic is pretty self-explanatory. It means that 100% of the product is made with 100% certified organic ingredients. These products will also have a certified USDA seal on the package or something that says it is 100% organic.
To be considered organic the ingredients must be certified organic. However, there is an exception. The USDA has a National Allowed and Prohibited Substances list of ingredients. Organic foods can contain up to 5% of the ingredients on this list. Much like 100% organic products, organic products will also include a USDA seal or a claim stating they are organic on the package.
Made with organic ingredients foods means that a minimum of 70% of the food is made with organic ingredients. These products cannot use the USDA organic seal. These products cannot claim to be organic but can say they have up to three categories of organic ingredients. So think of the products that say made with organic berries or something along those lines; however, according to the USDA, these products cannot have the word organic in their main display panel.
Lastly, we have specific organic ingredients. These are products that have less than 70% organic ingredients. Much like the made with category, these products cannot use the USDA seal or use the word organic in the main panel of the product. They can say which ingredients are organic in the ingredient lists, though.
When it comes to produce the USDA defines organic produce as certified to have grown on soil that had no prohibited substances applied for three years prior to harvest. With grocery prices on the rise, a great way to determine which produce is the EWG's Dirty Dozen and Clean 15 list that it comes out with yearly (I wrote a blog post on that I will link to this below).
The term natural is one of the most common labels you will see at the grocery store and possibly one of the most controversial. In fact, until recent years, the FDA had no definition for the term natural giving all access for companies to label their food products as such regardless of the ingredients. For years people have been buying highly processed foods labeled as natural, which is why I always say the most important place to look when shopping for food is the nutrition panel on the back because the front of the box is not always straightforward. Today the term natural has a little bit more of a definition but still not much at all and really doesn't hold much weight.
The FDA has a policy on the term natural but has not engaged in any rulemaking to enforce it.. According to the FDA, natural should be used on food products that has "nothing artificial or synthetic (including added color) that would not normally be expected to be in the food is added." This definition is a little....up for interpretation. A major issue with the FDA's definition of natural is that it does not include food production or manufacturing. This means you can be buying a product labeled as natural but is doused with chemicals or made in a not-so-humane way. The FDA has also never stated that the word natural has any nutritional or health benefits, this means you can be buying low-nutrient foods labeled as natural to trick yourself into thinking they are a better option.
The USDA has a similar definition of the word. According to them the word natural should only be used when no artificial ingredients (including added color) are used, and when the food is "minimally processed". This definition also leaves a lot of room for loopholes.
When it comes to buying "natural" foods, the best course of action is to look at the nutritional panel and compare it to the other options, because natural does not mean healthy or better for you, oftentimes it just means more expensive.
Whole Wheat, White, & Whole Grain
The bread aisle, shelves and shelves of what feels like a million different types of bread all compete to be the "best option" for you. Bread gets a bad rep here in the US due to fad diet culture and the whole carbs are bad for you thing (btw carbs are our bodies and brains main source of energy), so the bread aisle is especially intimidating for someone trying to make healthier options.
Let's talk about white bread first. White bread is more processed compared to whole wheat and whole grain bread and has more added sugar and preservatives. White bread is also lower in nutrients than whole wheat bread or whole grain bread, as white bread only contains the endosperm of the wheat kernel used to make bread, meaning it was stripped away of the bran and germ, which provide much more fiber, vitamins and minerals. White bread sold in America is actually so processed and filled with extra sugars that it is not legally considered bread in some other countries... it's considered cake!
Inherently eating whole grains is going to be a healthier option compared to white bread, however it’s important to check out the labels on your bread. You may see the label "whole wheat" and "100 percent whole wheat". When you see this, it's usually better to go with the 100% whole wheat option, as the term whole wheat only can mean it is made of a mix of wheat and white flour so the entire thing may not be made of 100% whole wheat. In general, 100% whole wheat and whole grain are pretty equal in nutritional value, the main difference is whole grain may be made from other whole grains as well and not just whole wheat grain. It really comes down to your taste buds on this one and decide which you like better 100 whole wheat or whole grain!
I think we can all take a moment to pause here and celebrate the prices of eggs starting to drop, but that doesn't make shopping for eggs any less confusing. I cannot tell you how many times my husband and I have argued trying to debate which labeling of eggs are a healthier option, so let's break them down. Before we do, it's important to note that while all eggs are considered a whole food and have health benefits, this category comes down to the production of the eggs more then anything and what you are okay with buying. As we know, there is a huge difference in the prices of certain kinds of eggs, eggs that are labeled as free-range often differ in price by at least a dollar or two more than regular caged eggs. By knowing the difference in the labels, you can be more informed and decide how you want to spend your money on a product that is the same. I also want to note that many of the labels you see on eggs are also used on meat and dairy so just know these definitions expand beyond the egg aisle!
Let's start with cage-free and free-range eggs. Cage-free (sometimes labeled as free-roaming hens) means the hens are not confined to cages and have access to move about in an open area. Free-range (sometimes seen as pasture-fed) means the hens have access to outdoor areas or are raised outdoors. This means the hens have access to more then just the feed they are provided. Unfortunately, in the US there is no specific criteria on how much space a hen needs to have access to for them to be considered cage-free or free-range. This is a major issue because often times even free-rang and cage-free animals are overcrowded and have poor quality conditions. This is when it's important to look at the company you are buying from because studies have shown some companies who claim to have free-range and cage-free eggs actually produce the same quality eggs as a caged environment, but of course, charge more. Check out the company and see what their definitions are of cage-free and free-range to determine if it's worth the difference in price and if their eggs are actually better quality.
Next, let's talk about natural again. As we learned before natural really doesn't mean much of anything. When it comes to eggs, all it means is nothing was added to the egg. So in other words, do not splurge on eggs labeled as natural it's a scam.
One of the major issues with eggs and other animal products is the feed the animals are given. I won't dive into this here, but there is a lot of research to support the quality of feed affects on the quality of the animal product and can have health effects on us who eat that product. Eggs that have that USDA organic seal we talked about before are cage-free and free-range hens, that are fed an organic diet. This means there is no pesticides or fertilizers added to their foods. So in my opinion, if I am going to splurge on eggs the USDA organic seal is what I look for. However, once again organic only applies to the diet, not the amount of space the hens are given like we talked about with cage-free and free-rage.
Other Common Terms With Animal Products
Antibiotic-free is something we see on animal products, specially packaged meat and eggs. This is something that is going to be more of an issue with large facroty farms that have a large population of whatever animal they raise. Oftentimes, animals are given antibiotics to avoid disease think large population of animals. In other cases, animals can be given an antibiotic when they become ill, usually on a smaller farm. Animals who receive antibiotics cannot be considered any of the categories of organic, however, just because something is labeled as antibiotic-free does not mean it is organic. This label only means this animal did not take antibiotics, but it does not speak to anything else.
Hormone-free is another term we see on animal products but can be very misleading. When labels say hormone-free it means that the animal was not administered any synthetic hormones. This is an important label because there is countless research to support the health risks associated with eating animal products that come from animals that were administered synthetic hormones. The label hormone-free has a lot of controversy around it due to political pressure on the FDA. Even though there is research supporting the dangers of synthetic hormones on our health, the FDA requires milk and dairy product that is rBGH-free or rBST-free to have a disclaimer that the FDA acknowledges no difference compared to dairy products with synthetic hormones. I know... and although we will save the politics behind food for a different blog post, this just deserves to be shared. The other reason hormone-free labels are misleading is that there are laws in the US which do not allow for synthetic hormones to be used in poultry, veal, or "exotic meats". This means if you see hormone-free advertising on these categories of meat, it's just a marketing trick to get you to spend more money because, technically, it's true there is no synthetic hormones. They just leave out the part where they are not allowed.. at all.
At the end of the day companies are going to try and sell you their products, but I hope that reading this blog post helped you to feel more empowered as a shopper. The goal of this post is to help you to make a more informed decision on where you want to spend your money when trying to make healthier choices.