How to understand nutrition labels (from non-GMO to grass fed and beyond)
When looking good is your job, you begin to take what you put in your mouth more seriously. We’ve all been envious of celebrities’ glowing skin, toned figures and shiny hair. While the diets they follow to achieve these results may be quite different (from cleanses to anti-inflammatory regimens to fasting), they all have one thing in common: They are based on FOOD (shocking, right?!). And, at the end of the day, eating more higher quality food shows on the outside. (See: Kourtney Kardashian who is known to only eat organic and gluten free.)
But here’s the challenge: With the resolution to eat better in tow, you head to the grocery store only to be confused by all of the different labels. After spending what seems like an eternity debating between $3 or $8 eggs, you ask yourself if buying organic is truly worth it. What on earth do these labels mean anyways? Well, fear not, because I have broken it all down for you.
The general rule to eating in the most health-supportive way is to eat things grown in the most traditional way, which oftentimes is (but not always) organic. Meaning that if you had the ability to travel back to 1916 to attend the opening of the first Chanel couture store with Mademoiselle Coco herself, the food would be produced the same way then as it is now. (We can dream, ladies.)
As a health coach and nutritionist, I advise my clients to eat organic whenever possible. Locally grown produce is the second best option, and GMOs should be avoided, at the very least until we know more about them. Your most beautiful, glowing future self will thank you. Here are the most popular food labels, decoded.
The organic label means that the farmer didn’t use synthetic fertilizers, pesticides, herbicides or GMOs when growing your fruits and veggies. Remember, organic food is always labelled. Organic animal products are raised without hormones or antibiotics, and the grains they are fed must be organic, too. Organic is almost always a safe bet and the best option. Just ask Gwyneth.
Companies manufacturing Non-GMO foods choose to do so and label them independently. Genetically Modified Organisms (GMO) have had genes from a different plant (or animal) added to their own DNA, so that the end product takes on a desired feature, like producing its own pesticides—yikes. Our American neighbours are currently up in arms over legislation mandating the labeling of GMOs. In Europe and in many other countries GMOs are clearly labelled. In Canada, much like in the US, they are not. The long-term implications, both on the human body and environmentally, are still unknown.
You know the taste of a fresh peach at a farm stand in the middle of summer? That’s local. “Local” implies the products were grown within a 100-mile radius of the consumer, which makes them fresher and more eco-friendly than foods that have been internationally shipped.
Sorry to break this to you, but “natural” has absolutely no meaning, nor is it a regulated term. So next time you see “natural” cheese puffs or nachos at the store, read the label to determine how natural it really is.
Cage Free/Free Range
Cage-free generally refers to eggs. Cage-free eggs come from hens that (surprise!) aren’t kept in cages. They aren’t given access to the outdoors and rarely see the sun, but it’s better than the alternative. Free-range eggs (and chickens) are similar to cage-free but they typically have more personal space and some access to the outdoors.
Wild/Grass Fed/Pasture Raised
Wild meat or fish refers to animals that were caught in their natural habitat, such as fish from the ocean or hunted wild game. This is the most lean and nutritious option. Grass fed refers to animals that were fed grass as nature intended. (Cue the image of cows happily chomping away on grass in a field.) In the wintertime, they may be fed a close substitute, since lush grass isn’t available. You’ll find grass-fed beef, dairy, lamb, and goat. Pasture raised refers to where the animal eats. These animals spend most of their time outdoors, but in the winter months may be fed grains and not grasses. You tend to see pasture-raised chicken, eggs and pork.
Hormone Free/Antibiotic Free
Meat can never be completely hormone free since animals need their own hormones to grow, just like we do. Be wary of this label, since it may just be marketing. In Canada, artificial hormones are only allowed in cows that are used for beef, not in dairy cows, poultry or pork. Antibiotics are used in animals to treat and prevent illness to make animals grow faster. They are used in beef, dairy cows, chicken, laying hens, turkey, pork and fish—they can even be given to honey bees! The more antibiotics we use in the food supply, the more antibiotic resistant we become, which is why you’ll see companies moving away from antibiotic use.