If you’re looking for a small, attainable step you can take to start achieving a  healthier lifestyle, reading food labels is that step! Unfortunately, no one knows this better than the various food industries vying for your business, and they will often resort to misleading tactics in order to pedal potentially less than reputable products. It is important to possess the knowledge that will enable you to make choices that will benefit your life without fear of being misled, and consulting with a nutritionist is a great first step in learning your best defense. With that in mind, here are some essentials to think about the next time you are grocery shopping. 

General Labels

  1. Look at the Serving Size First! This may seem like an obvious suggestion, but, lowering the serving size is a great way for food industries to make the consumer believe their product is healthier (contains less calories, sugar and bad fats) than it really is. 
  2. Pay attention to the “Percent of Daily Value”. A good general guide is 5% or less is considered “low” and 15% or higher is considered “high”. It is also important to keep in mind that these values are based on a 2,000-calorie diet which is not conducive to every person; height, age, weight, activity level, etc. can all affect the need for additional or fewer calories.
  3. Ingredients are listed in order of weight they contribute to the product. The first ingredient contributes the highest amount of weight.
  4. Another trick food companies employ is the less than 0.5g exception, they are allowed to count 0.5g per serving and below as 0, and often will adjust the serving size accordingly. For example, when the Nutrition Facts label says a food contains “0 g” of trans fat, but includes “partially hydrogenated oil” in the ingredient list, it means the food contains trans fat, but less than 0.5 grams of trans fat per serving. So, if you eat more than one serving, you could quickly reach your daily limit of trans fat.
  5. “Made with Whole Grains”… This label generally means nothing. Using this label only requires the manufacturer to use any amount of whole grain. This means that the product could be 99.99% refined grain, but as long as the last .01% is whole grain, the label can be used. Look for labels that say “100% whole grain”.
  6. “Local”. There are little to no regulations to this label. There are no repercussions for a vendor to advertise their product as local if it is not. A good way to avoid being misled in this area is to explore neighborhood farmers markets. 

Organic Labels

  1. “100% Organic” label on a food product indeed means that the food is 100% organic or contains 100% organically grown ingredients. For produce, this means no pesticides used in growing, Non-GMO, weeds and pests are naturally controlled, and natural fertilizers are used. These products may display the USDA seal of approval.
  2. “Organic” label are only required to contain 95% organic ingredients. The extra 5% often refers to GMO use or conventionally grown ingredients. These products may also display the USDA seal of approval.
  3. “Made with Organic Ingredients” label refers to foods that contain at least 70% organic ingredients but will not display the USDA seal.
  4. “Contains Organic Ingredients” label refers to foods that contain less than 70% organic ingredients and also will not display the USDA seal.


  1. Conventional Standards: Caged hens typically are unable to practice natural behaviors (foraging, nesting, bathing, etc.), which can effect nutrient content of the eggs. They are fed antibiotics in order to prevent disease in their close quarters, their beaks are often cut to prevent fighting and they will sometimes be starved in order to adjust their egg laying cycle. 
  2. “Cage-Free” label generally means that the hens are indeed “cage-free” but without access to the outdoors and have similar space available to them as the caged birds. This standard has the same limitations to nutrient availability to the birds and therefore their eggs.
  3. “Free-Range”/ “Free-Roaming” label. The USDA has defined “free-range” for some poultry products, but there are no government-regulated standards in “free-range” egg production required to make the claim. Typically, free-range hens are un-caged inside barns and have some degree of outdoor access, but because there is no regulation of the term, there are no restrictions regarding what the birds can be fed and no requirements for the amount, duration or quality of outdoor access. Because they are not caged, they can engage in many natural behaviors such as nesting and foraging. Beak cutting and forced molting through starvation are still permitted. 
  4. “Pasture-Raised” is the newest label and standard of living for egg-laying hens. Typically the birds are allowed access to a spacious outdoor environment where they are able to conduct natural behaviors, which adds to the vitamin-D content and Omega-3’s in the resulting eggs. This standard is defined by the USDA but not yet regulated. 
  5. “Omega-3 enriched” label generally refers to the hens being fed flax seeds in addition to their typical feed. 

Meat and Dairy:

  1. There is no regulation on labels for meat and dairy unless they bare a USDA stamp of approval. 
  2. “Natural or All Natural” label means that the meat can’t have any artificial colors, artificial flavors, preservatives, or any other artificial ingredients in it. Animals can still be given antibiotics or growth enhancers and meat can be injected with salt, water, and other ingredients. This term can be applied to all raw cuts of beef because they aren’t processed. The natural label does not reflect how the animal was raised or fed, which makes it fairly meaningless.
  3. To obtain a USDA approval for a “Naturally Raised” label, a specific statement must follow indicating what this includes for the manufacturer such as “no antibiotics used”.
  4. “Grass Fed” label claims that the animals are fed solely on a diet of grass or hay and have continuous access to the outdoors. Cattle are naturally ruminants that eat grass, so they tend to be healthier and leaner when fed this way. In addition, grass-fed beef has been shown to have more of the healthy omega-3 fatty acids. However, if meat is labeled as grass fed but not certified organic, the animal may have been raised on pasture that was exposed to or treated with synthetic pesticides or fertilizers. Furthermore, all beef cattle begin their lives eating grass and all are “finished” on grain before slaughter. The amount of time cattle spend in each activity are not strictly regulated, therefore, some beef producers may claim their cattle is “grass-fed” only because their cattle spent the very beginning of their lives grazing as all cattle does. 

The very best way to know what you are buying is to know from whom you’re buying it. There are many great ways to accomplish this. Neighborhood farmer’s markets, small butchers, the farm itself, or even a grocery store with informed and honest employees (PCC, Whole Foods, Central Market, etc.) are all great options for finding healthy, nutritious foods that you can eat with confidence in knowing what you are ingesting. Additionally, Starkel Nutrition is now offering Grocery Store Tours! A hands-on education session where we take you out of the clinic and into the real world. You will meet at a grocery store and walk through what a healthy shopping trip looks like, aisle-by-aisle. This is a great chance to share our brand favorites, introduce you to new foods and teach you shopping tips to simplify your life. Check out more information here.

Interested in learning more? Schedule an appointment with us to get support on your journey to holistic and kind health.

Edited by Starkel Nutrition Marketing Assistant, Mairin McCurdy