Five tips from an expert on how to read food labels

Food labels are important, but they can also be confusing

Published January 9, 2021 4:29PM (EST)

Mother with toddler on hip holding a carton of cooking cream and checking label. (Getty Images)
Mother with toddler on hip holding a carton of cooking cream and checking label. (Getty Images)

This article originally appeared on FoodPrint.


Food labels can be very confusing. Eggs labeled "natural" may sound good — we want our food to come from natural sources, right? — but the label is actually just a marketing term with no true meaning. Some, like "Pasture-Raised," suggest the animals were raised outside on grass, but do not guarantee it. Even foods that are marked with a label that guarantees certain requirements are met, such as "USDA Organic Certification", may have been produced in a wide range of circumstances: on a small family farm using sustainable methods, or on a large, industrial-scale farm, implementing the most basic of organic standards.

That's why a comprehensive food label guide can be so useful. FoodPrint has gathered information on labels used on produce, beef, poultry, pork, dairy, eggs and seafood, offering the best verifiable options for each category. But sometimes you want an explanation, not to read a guidebook, and we get that. That's why we sat down with Dr. Urvashi Rangan, FoodPrint's Chief Science Advisor, in a Facebook Live discussion to talk all about how to read food labels. Urvashi is an environmental health scientist, toxicologist and investigator with more than 25 years of experience deciphering food systems. Throughout our conversation she helped us break down food labels, explained the often tricky or misleading words and symbols found on food packaging, and offered suggestions for the most sustainable options out there.

We've gathered some of the tips from our discussion with Urvashi below. You can also watch a recording of the conversation over on Facebook.

Why think about food labels 

You might be wondering why you need to pay attention to labels at all. If you care at all about how your food got to your plate, or the impact it might have on your health or the health of others, then labels can be a good guide. What food issues are important to you? Do you want your food to be pesticide free? Do you care about how animals were treated? Or maybe the way the workers were treated is what's important to you. Are you most concerned about the environment and food production's impact on climate change? Maybe you are concerned about all of these things, or just one or two. Regardless, there are labels that certify food is produced without antibiotics or pesticides; labels that guarantee certain standards were met for animals or workers; and even labels that guarantee that bird, salmon or bee habitats were not disrupted.

So yep, food labels are important. But they can also be confusing. "After 25 years of looking at labels, even I get stumped every once in a while," Urvashi told us. "It really takes a little bit of homework." First step, she said, is to understand what issues are most important to you. Then research which labels guarantee your food is produced in a way that values those issues. If you want to dig deeper beyond these tips and our Facebook discussion, FoodPrint's Food Label Guide is set up to help shoppers see these different criteria really clearly and includes a wide range of food labels.

What to look for on egg cartons

Free range. Pasture-raised. Natural. Healthy. "Eggs in particular have always been a product that seems to have as many claims as possible and a lot of them don't have standard meaning behind them," Urvashi said. "They don't have standards or very good standards, and they aren't verified."

While the egg aisle might feel confusing — "If all the eggs say pasture-raised, what is the difference?" — Urvashi suggested first consider the hen. A hen should live out of a cage, have access to pasture (her natural environment) and be able to eat insects and other foods that are important for shell development and general hen health.

Unfortunately, a carton marked "pasture-raised" without any other food labels or certification, doesn't guarantee these conditions, because pasture-raised is not a standardized term. Instead, Urvashi said to look for eggs marked "USDA Organic Certified" and "Certified Humane." "Then you can be guaranteed that the free-range claim is verified," she told us. Faced with a limited selection, Urvashi said that choosing eggs marked "no antibiotics" should be the minimum decision, but that adding the "USDA Certified Organic" label will get you more value.

Read more about eggs in our label guide.

How to read milk carton labels 

When you look into the milk case, there is a lot more going on than the whole, 2 percent and skim milk choices of yesteryear. But when it comes to looking for the most sustainable option, Urvashi narrowed it down to three choices for us.

She starts with USDA Certified Organic as her baseline. These cows will be fed non GMO quality feed that has been grown without synthetic fertilizers, and will not be given hormones. But can you do more, she asked? The next step is choosing grassfed, looking for a label like "Certified Grassfed by AGW" or "PCO Certified Grassfed." "The nutrient density and fatty acid profile of [milk and beef] is much better when you finish cows on grass, rather than corn [which is typical in industrialized animal production]," Urvashi explained. "Corn feeding creates very acid conditions in the gut of the animal that E.coli love. Animals who are fed corn tend to shed more E.coli than animals that are just grass fed."

Finally, choosing an organic, grassfed milk that also has an animal welfare label is the most ideal, sustainable option. Look for labels like "Animal Welfare Approved" or "Certified Humane" which guarantee certain standards for the animals. "Does it cost more to do organic grassfed than organic? It sure does," she said. "But it's better for the animal, better for us and better for the planet."

Read more about milk and dairy in our label guide.

How to shop for shrimp 

Americans love shrimp: we eat an average of 4.4 pounds per person a year. But if you care out the environment, food labor issues, antibiotics in your food and more, shrimp can be murky waters to navigate.

Some of the big problems with both wild and farmed shrimp include the overfishing of wild shrimp; shrimp that are farmed using drugs and antibiotics; and an international indentured labor force harvesting and producing shrimp. The US imports the majority of its shrimp, which makes it very hard to enforce regulations or production methods. "Unlike other products in the store, where we have a lot more reliable certifications, we just don't really have a lot of labels that do everything they need to in fish," Urvashi said. There are food labels out there, including the industry label "Best Aquaculture Practices" (for farmed fish) and the "Marine Stewardship" label (for wild fish), but because of the complications of international fishing, Urvashi said  "they all fall short a little of what they are trying to accomplish."

So, when it comes to shrimp, what can you do to get what you want? Urvashi suggested looking for shrimp from recirculating farms. "These farms are attempting to try to produce shrimp in an enclosed environment, where they can control inputs and outputs," she said "and produce shrimp that is a higher quality than say a farmed product from across the world where we don't really know what's happening."

You can also look at wild shrimp, provided it's from the US. And while wild shrimp makes up just a tiny fraction of the US market, Urvashi stressed that wild fish and shellfish don't eat any antibiotics. "As long as it is fished sustainably and they are taking care of harvesting methods and the way in which they are fished," she said, "you can in fact get very good wild fish." She also noted the fact that shrimp in the US is seasonal, and that by paying attention to the seasonality of shrimp, you can be rewarded with a much more flavorful product.

Read more about seafood in our label guide.

What's the deal with natural? 

When you purchase a commercially-made ingredient, whether it's Greek yogurt, spice mix or cereal, make sure to look at the ingredient list. Less is better. "If you see the term 'natural flavorings' on a package, it doesn't always mean it came from the natural source," Urvashi said. If you want to purchase something strawberry-flavored, the ingredient list needs to say strawberries, otherwise there is nothing natural about that flavor. "Natural flavors are a bit of a cheat by the flavoring industry: you can literally produce a flavor from a bacteria and call it a natural flavor." She advised consumers to beware of the "natural flavors" terminology if you want to avoid artificial flavors and colorings.

By Katherine Sacks

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