Tips and Tricks for Reading Food Labels

With today’s food sources being questionable as to where they come from, how they are grown, and the nutrition they actually provide, a food label is often your best friend. There are so many different labels out today on foods that unless you know what each one really means, you may not be getting the real information you are seeking. It would be great if we could all grow our own food, not have to deal with checking a food label and know that we are getting the freshest, most nutritious food. But most people either don’t have the time, make the time, have the knowledge or desire or the space to do this. For that reason, let’s take a look at some tips for picking the best quality food and for reading a food label so you know what it is really telling you.

1. Organic – Organic food products are those that have been grown and processed by organic farming methods. There have been studies reporting that organic food is more nutrient rich and has more antioxidant benefits than non-organic food. If you find the USDA Organic label on food products you will know that at least 95% of the ingredients are organically grown. To qualify for this label, a product must be free of synthetic growth hormones, antibiotics, pesticides, and irradiation can’t be used in the production or processing of it. This is true at least for the 95% organic ingredients. The other 5% might have additives or synthetics from a list of approved substances. If your label only says it is made with organic ingredients, but does not have the USDA label, then it may be only 70% organic ingredients and not produced by synthetic methods, but it does not contain enough organic ingredients to qualify for the USDA organic label. Ingredients claiming to be organic must not have or have been produced with chemicals, additives, synthetics, pesticides or anything genetically engineered. If a product is claiming to be 100% organic then there should be an ingredient list on the label that includes information on who has certified it as organic. What may surprise you is that even foods with the USDA certification are not necessarily free of heavy metals or GMO ingredients. Heavy metals such as lead, arsenic, cadmium, mercury and aluminum are not tested for in order to receive the organic certification and the National Organic Program has policy that finding trace amounts of genetically modified ingredients in a product does not constitute a violation of the regulations. If GMO’s are found in a product, the agency that certifies it will take steps to prevent future occurrences however. Products coming from other countries (especially those that have large pollution problems) that are labeled organic are more likely to have the heavy metals than the ones grown in the U.S., so be aware of that.

2. Naturally Grown – A label that says Certified Naturally Grown means the product is very similar to the ones with the certified organic label. The difference is that the farm it came from was not certified by the National Organic Program of the USDA. This could be due to the high costs and the hoops farmers have to jump through to be in the program. Certified Naturally grown is a label that came about through a non-profit organization where farmers become inspectors for other farmers. Do not confuse this with products that label themselves as “natural” without any type of certification. The USDA defines All Natural as being a product with nothing artificial and has gone through minimal processing. This claim is not certified by a third party, but products making the claim of being natural should have an explanation on the label of why they are natural. In most cases natural is not anywhere near the same as organic, so read those labels carefully when selecting products claiming to be natural.

3. Fair Trade – FLO (Fairtrade Labelling Organizations International) gives a certification for products in which workers have safe working conditions, receive fair compensation for their work, no forced or child labor is used and workers are allowed to join trade unions. Products carrying this label must be grown, produced and processed in a way that promotes social, economic and environmental development.

4. Heart Check Symbol – If you are particularly interested in a diet that promotes a healthy heart, look for the American Heart Association’s symbol on food labels certifying that the product meets their guidelines and is a participant in their certification program.

5. GMO – Foods that have been genetically modified or genetically engineered are not required to be labeled as such in the United States. Here’s a tip though that will let you know what you are getting in your produce. Look at the PLU number on the produce. If it has a 4 digit code number then it was grown by conventional farming methods and if it has a 5 digit number that begins with 8 then it is genetically modified or engineered. If you are looking for organically grown produce, look for 5 digit labels that start with a 9.

6. High Pesticide Levels – Some fruits and vegetables have higher levels of pesticides than others. A non-profit group called Environmental Working Group has tested and come up with those that test as highest for pesticide levels. For that reason these might be the fruits and vegetables that you will want to buy organic. They include apples, grapes, peaches, strawberries, cucumbers, sweet bell peppers, potatoes, cherry tomatoes, kale, summer squash and spinach. To save on your food budget you might consider buying conventionally grown fruits and vegetables that are low on the pesticide level list instead of organic. These would include kiwi, mango, papaya, pineapple, grapefruit, cantaloupe, asparagus, avocado, cabbage, sweet corn, eggplant, onion, sweet potatoes, and frozen sweet peas. Since organic selections do cost more than their conventionally grown counterparts, you might also stick to organic for the foods you eat the most of and go with conventionally grown for those foods that you don’t eat as often.

7. Searching Out Organic Sources – Look for farmers’ markets in your area. If there aren’t any real close then you might consider making a periodic trip to stock up on organic products and either freezing or canning them for future use. If you have a food co-op in your area that you can join or shop at then you may be able to get organic products at a lower cost than the grocery store. Also look for CSA’s in your area. These are Community Supported Agriculture programs in which you are actually buying a share in the crops produced by a particular farm for that season. You pay a fee and you receive a division of the crops produced each week. If none of these alternatives exist for you, consider starting your own organic garden or do some patio gardening. If nutritious, organic food is a priority for you then you can find a way. At the very least, find out what day the store you normally shop at receives their produce and buy on that day to get the freshest fruits and veggies. Consider buying extra of items that are in their natural growing season and freezing or home canning them for later.

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With our products, harvesting, cooling, cleaning, water removal, freezing and storage is all done in less than 5 hours of time to protect nutritional quality with attention given to minimal environmental impact and preserving the unique sustainable ecosystems the raw ingredients are obtained from. And in addition to the GMP certification and the USDA Organic Certification, we undergo the meticulous inspections of our manufacturing facility, records and testing procedures performed by the Oregon Department of Agriculture to meet criteria for the ODA Food Processing License.

I know that all the various food labels out there today can get confusing and take a little more time to look for. In the long run though, it makes you an informed consumer and lets you know what to look for to find products that are a match for your values and health concerns. Finding the freshest and most nutritious food sources that you can will pay off for any extra time or expense with benefits to your health. I hope you find some of these tips useful in knowing what to look for on food labels and how to get the best food for your buck that you can. If you have any other tips to share, we’d love to hear them. Just leave a comment below and share what you’ve found with other readers.

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