Your Crazy Sexy Guide to Food Labels + Printable Cheat Sheet

22 Comments
Hiya Food Sleuths,

Understanding food labels is an essential part of making sure you’re getting the safest and healthiest food possible. Thankfully, more people are demanding to know what’s on their plates and how it’s produced. We’re no longer staying silent or blindly trusting that food companies or our government have our backs.

We want to understand what foods have been heavily sprayed by pesticides and how these chemicals can damage our health. We want to know about hormones in milk, antibiotics in meat, preservatives like MSG in our veggie burgers and sugar in our whole grain crackers. And we really want to know which crops are genetically-modified (GMO’s) so we can make our own choices.

If we want the full story behind all those stickers, stamps and seals, we have to continue to educate ourselves, put on our detective hats and shop smart. It’s unfortunate, but the food industry doesn’t always want to tell you what goes on behind the scenes because it may not be very appetizing—for your tastebuds, your values, or your health.

I’ve done a ton of research on this topic and I’m so excited to share the details with you today. Make sure to download the food labels guide I created for you by signing up below. Return to it for your own reference or take it with you to the store. Let’s get started!

Why food labels impact your health

Prevention rocks, and as you all know, eating well is a huge part of staying well and living long. Recent studies are showing that foods in their natural state and those not treated with chemicals and pesticides are often richer in cancer-fighting antioxidants and nutrients (study). And although it will take more time to fully comprehend the long-term effects of things like GMOs, pesticides, and food additives, research is showing that:

  • Dairy cows given rGBH produce milk with 6 times more Insulin-like growth factor 1 (IGF 1) (study here). IGF 1 consumption increases risk for prostate and breast cancers (meta-analysis here).
  • Antibiotics given unnecessarily to livestock results in harmful antibiotic-resistant bacteria in the meat such as salmonella, campylobacter, and E. coli. These superbugs cause hard-to-treat foodborne illnesses and infections in humans.
  • Pesticides that make their way into the food system (produce, animal products, etc.) are very difficult for our bodies to break down. We store these toxic compounds in our body fat, where they accumulate over time. This toxic load can lead to damaging health implications. For example, pesticides in meat and dairy such as beta-h and mirex have been shown to elevate a woman’s risk of developing endometriosis by 70% (study here).
  • Genetically Modified Organisms (GMOs) may be responsible for the increase in cancers, immune diseases, and other health issues (study).
  • Preservatives such as nitrates may cause cancer (EPA childrens’ risk assessment summary here, EPIC study here).
  • Consumption of High Fructose Corn Syrup (HFCS) (present in everything from store-bought drinks and nut butters to salad dressings and crackers) increases levels of triglycerides, LDL (bad) cholesterol, and Apolipoprotein B, all risk factors for heart disease (study here).

Now that we’ve covered some important reasons to up our food label knowledge, let’s look at how they’re created and the standards behind them.

The “Regulation” of Food Labels

Although the FDA regulates much of what you see on food labels, it doesn’t mean you can take these labels at face value. The FDA’s regulation includes the name of the food, which nutrients are displayed in the Nutrition Facts, and the legitimacy of certain health claims. However, some words and health claims on food labels are only loosely defined or not regulated by the FDA at all, which can make food product labels incredibly misleading.

As a consumer, you don’t know which labels are tightly regulated by the FDA and which are not. “Low fat,” for example, is strictly defined by the FDA as less than 3 grams of fat per serving, and “low cholesterol” must mean that the food has less than 20 milligrams of cholesterol and 2 grams of saturated fat per serving. But very little justification is needed when it comes to slapping a label on a product like “natural,” “healthy,” “helps a healthy heart” or “supports the immune system.”

Let’s take a closer look at this gray area of labeling. A food label can contain the term “natural” as long as the food doesn’t contain added colors, artificial flavors, or synthetic chemicals, and is minimally processed. That food can still be treated with antibiotics, growth enhancers and other additives while it’s raised or grown. And when it comes to using the word “healthy,” the only requirements are that it must be low in fat and cholesterol. But this “healthy” product can still contain gobs of sugar or HFCS. Do these food standards sound natural or healthy to you? Nope.

You may think that if your health is at risk, the FDA has your back. Unfortunately, this just isn’t the case. The overuse of antibiotics in livestock and the existence of superbugs is an example of this. While the FDA knows about the potential for superbugs in meat and provides guidance documents on best practices to limit antibiotic overuse, it does nothing to regulate these practices or communicate their existence on a food label.

This is also the case with bioengineered foods (genetically engineered (GE) foods and genetically modified organisms (GMO) fall into this category). A bioengineered food doesn’t have to be labeled as such, as long as it basically cooks the same, has about the same nutrients, and doesn’t contain added allergens. Again, these kinds of policies are leaving consumers in the dark and giving food companies the upper hand when it comes to selling their products.

Food Label Progress

Before you get too bummed, there’s some good news for consumers when it comes to labeling policy and regulation. States are taking action to require that genetically engineered foods be labeled, period. If you feel passionately about your right to know about GMOs, get involved in your state (and make sure to vote!). To see which states are doing this, go here.

Since you can’t rely on the FDA to force companies to fully disclose what’s in their products, it’s crucial that we all learn what labels we can and cannot trust. Thankfully, 3rd party organizations have created a variety of food labels that tell the full story. Several awesome organizations (independent of the FDA) grant specific certifications to food producers for their foods. “NON GMO Project Verified,” and “Animal Welfare Approved” are just a couple examples of these.

Label Decoding to the Rescue!

So now you may be wondering how to start shopping the smarty pants way. No problem, I’ve got ya covered!

I’ve researched some of the most trustworthy and deceptive labels—whether you’re a vegan, vegetarian or omnivore. My guide starts out with a quick reference sheet broken down by food category for easy access on-the-go. Each category lists the labels to “look for” and “be wary of” at the store. I’ve also included a glossary of label definitions to help you deepen your knowledge.

Keep in mind, that sometimes foods without labels may actually meet the requirements you’re looking for, but the companies haven’t gone through the hefty inspections necessary to receive official certification. This is especially likely with smaller food companies, so it may take a phone call to your favorite food folks to figure out what’s going on behind the scenes.

Crazy Sexy Guide to Food Labels

How To Read Food Labels Guide

Armed with this information, you’ll be able to pick out the winners while shopping and make a more educated decision about what food makes it into your cart. I hope it helps!

Now it’s your turn. Do you have any tips for reading food labels or any other questions I can try and answer in future blogs?

Peace & transparency,

Kris Carr

P.S. Wanna spice up your plant-powered cooking routine?

Gain instant access to my digital cooking classroom. 12 lessons. 1.5 hours. Endless delicious possibilities. Chef Sarno and I will help you dice, sauté, roast, juice and blend your way to health and confidence in the kitchen.