The Biggest Label-Reading Mistakes You’re Making at the Grocery Store

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At this point, most healthy eaters know that you have to give most food label health claims and slogans a hefty dose of side eye. (Here's looking at you, "whole wheat.")

But even the most skeptical among us can still get tripped up. Words like organic, natural, and non-GMO all sound great—but what do they really mean? Which one should I buy and which ones just aren't worth it? And on that note...why are there so many different types of eggs?

Enter Foodprint, a newly launched website aimed at helping consumers cut through the noise by understanding ingredients as well as sustainability, worker welfare, and animal welfare. Here, their chief scientist, Urvashi Rangan, PhD, along with The Real Food Grocery Guide author and health coach Maria Marlowe, reveal the label-reading mistakes healthy shoppers most often make at the grocery store.

label reading tips
Photo: Getty Images/Hoxton/Tom Merton

1. Assuming "natural" is best

"Between organic, non-GMO, and natural, I would take 'natural' off the table first because there really isn't any definition of what it means, and brands use it so loosely," Marlowe says. On the other hand, Marlowe and Dr. Rangan say organic and non-GMO are both legitimate certifications and brands must meet specific criteria in order to use that language on their labels.

"With non-GMO, that means no genetically-modified food was used at any point, including feed that was given to the animals, if that applies," Dr. Rangan says. "The main times to look for a non-GMO label is when you're buying something with corn, soy, or canola oil because those are the most common genetically modified ingredients," she adds.

As far as organic goes, both experts say this is the best one to look for. Like non-GMO products, organic products cannot include GMOs, but they also must meet a host of other standards (like not using synthetic fertilizers or pesticides on crops, and ensuring animals aren't given hormones or antibiotics). So you basically get the most bang for your buck.

However, Marlowe recognizes it's not always possible to buy everything organic all the time because of accessibility and cost. "If you're deciding what organic products are important to buy, I'd start with any animal products because animals from conventional farms often are given antibiotics," she says. "Then, for produce, I would start with buying organic for the fruits and vegetables on the Environmental Working Group's Dirty Dozen list. Those two areas are the most important, and then it comes down to what's accessible to you and what you can afford."

2. Going for vegetarian-fed eggs

Cage-free, free-roaming, pasture-raised, vegetarian-fed...picking up a dozen eggs is a complicated chore thanks to all of the different labels plopped on them. Well, don't waste your $$ on eggs that say "vegetarian-fed" or "vegan-fed" on them, says Marlowe. Chickens are not naturally vegetarians, meaning this diet deprives them of a natural food source and thus isn't necessarily good for their health. Plus, "when hens are allowed to roam outside, they're going to eat worms and insects," she says—so your "vegetarian-fed" chickens might not be getting decent exercise time, either. It's also worth noting that the term is not regulated at all, so there aren't any strict requirements if a brand wants to slap the term on the label.

Marlowe says pasture-raised is the one to go for because it means the hens were allowed outside during the day. Her second pick is free-range, which means the hens have had at least some time to roam around. However, there's no legal definition of either of these terms (meaning that they also run the risk of being meaningless), so check that eggs with either of these labels also have a "American Humane Certified" or "Certified Humane" label on them, according to Consumer Reports. Those groups set specific standards for those terms and do independent vetting to assess the quality of the hens' living spaces. 

3. Not looking at the source of your GF products

Living a gluten-free life has become relatively easy thanks to all the GF products on store shelves, but Dr. Rangan says it's important to be aware of your rice consumption. "There are some concerns around the arsenic levels in rice, and a lot of the gluten-free breads and pastas are made with rice flour," she says.

Basically, rice, whether it's organic or non-organic, absorbs lots more arsenic (which is naturally present in soil and water) more than other plants. The FDA says that long-term exposure to high levels of arsenic has been linked to certain cancers and heart diseases.

Before you start to panic about arsenic in your rice, know that it's not a huge deal if you're only eating rice and rice-products every so often, because you're likely not consuming enough arsenic that way to be harmful. But if you're eating a GF muffin for breakfast every day or a bowl of rice pasta every night, Dr. Ragnan says this something to keep in mind. "Really the key is to diversify your grains. That's going to ensure you're getting the most nutrient-density, too," she says.

4. Skipping the ingredients list on your alternative milk

It's probably an understatement to say that there are a TON of non-dairy milks to choose from: soy, almond, coconut, rice, oat, and even sesame. Most health-conscious alt-milk shoppers first eye the nutritional panel and go for the one that is the lowest in sugar, and highest in nutrients like vitamin D and calcium. Important? Totally. But Marlowe says you should take a hard look at the ingredients list, too.

"If you have a sensitive digestive system, you'll want to steer clear of ones with carrageenan," she says. (Carrageenan is a thickening and stabilizing agent derived from algae that has been linked to digestive inflammation, although research is disputed.) Marlowe adds that some people are also sensitive to gums like guar gums and locust bean gums, which are also used as thickening agents. "Most people can tolerate a little bit of gums, so it's not necessarily 'bad' if you see it on the label, but if you do have a sensitive digestive system, it's just something to be aware of," she says. The more you know!

For more smart shopping mistakes, check out these tips from a Whole Foods employee. And this is the grocery store shoppers love the most.

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