Healthy Nurse, Healthy Nation™ Blog - Understanding Food Labels To Go Green And Eat Clean 4274

Healthy Nurse, Healthy Nation™ Blog - Understanding Food Labels To Go Green And Eat Clean


Have you ever stopped to read the nutrition labels on foods in the grocery store? Do you see words like humanely raised, grassfed, or cage-free? And if so, do you know what they mean?

These words matter because they help you choose sustainable foods, which is important for both environmental AND health reasons. For example, every person who chooses sustainably raised protein at the grocery store is helping to:
  • Reduce the amount of carbon emissions going into the atmosphere: Most meat production harms the environment. The Environmental Working Group says that “beef consumption produces over twice as many carbon emissions as eating lamb and more than 9 times as much as eating chicken.”
  • Decrease and prevent antibiotic resistance: Poultry and cattle feed can contain antibiotics. Eating meat from these animals makes bacteria more resistant to superbug-fighting antibiotics.
  • Reduce the amount of chemicals (like arsenic) that seep into soil: Some grazing animals (like chickens) are given an arsenic growth promoter to make them unnaturally bigger. The arsenic in the livestock feed seeps into the soil, the water, and into our foods.
Selecting the foods that are best for you and the environment can be confusing. If you know what the different labels mean, you can make smarter (and healthier) choices. And if we all make better choices in the grocery store, the world can be a healthier place.

But Wait: Are All Food Label Claims Legitimate?
Just because a food label makes a claim like “cage-free” doesn’t mean the chickens were happily roaming around a grassy field. Many common terms that appear on meat, egg, produce, and dairy packaging might be mere marketing claims if there’s no verification process behind them. In those cases, you’re taking the company’s word for it.

According to the ASPCA, there are 3 independent and meaningful welfare certification labels you can trust for animal products. When you see these labels, it means the animals were either raised indoors with added enrichments, had outdoor access, or were raised in a pasture:

To earn one of these labels, food producers must pass on-site inspections by these third-party animal welfare organizations. If you see the above words on food labels, you can feel confident that they came from higher welfare farming.

Organic: A Factual Claim
The next claim you can trust is organic, which is regulated by the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA). It’s best to look for the words certified organic. The USDA says that for foods not certified, the manufacturer can’t place “any organic claim on the principal display panel or use the USDA organic seal anywhere on the package.” That makes it difficult for manufacturers to get away with claiming they’re organic without passing certification.

Here's one example: If eggs are labeled certified organic, the producer must follow defined standards and pass on-farm inspections. To pass, the hens must eat organic feed, be free-grazing, and not given hormones or antibiotics.

Contrary to popular belief, the rest of the common terms aren’t as clear-cut. Let’s dive deeper.

Meat and Dairy Labels
When you shop for meat and animal-based protein (like eggs and dairy), try to choose certified organic, grassfed, pasture-raised, and/or antibiotic-free, but keep in mind that not every claim is guaranteed.

The best of this bunch is certified organic, which we explained previously. But when it comes to the others, keep these facts in mind:
  • Grassfed: Cows naturally eat grass, but many farms in the beef industry feed them corn, which isn’t as healthy. How much grass does a cow need to eat for a label to say “grassfed”? 100% grassfed is the way to go, but even if you find this claim on products, remember that the USDA doesn’t regulate it.
  • Pasture-raised: If you see the terms “pasture-raised,” “pasture-grown,” or “pastured” on animal products, know that they are only loosely regulated by the USDA. The animal could have spent very little time in a pasture. Your best bet is to look for “pasture-raised” along with a label from Animal Welfare Approved, Global Animal Partnership, or Certified Humane.
  • Antibiotic-free: The use of antibiotics on industrial farms contributes to antibiotic resistance. Overuse of antibiotics promotes the growth of antibiotic-resistant “superbugs,” so it’s a good idea to choose antibiotic-free animal products. However, keep in mind that the USDA cannot verify these claims, since they don’t know if a product contains antibiotic residue.

To help you choose the most environmentally friendly meat and dairy products, look for credible certifications on the labels. In addition to the labels mentioned above, here are a few more certifications that you can trust:
While you want to look for any of the above terms, you can ignore the following:
  • Hormone-free: Giving hormones to animals is banned by law, so this claim is meaningless.
  • Humane: This is an unregulated term. That means food producers get to decide what’s humane and what’s not. Again, look for accompanying certifications on labels that use this term.
  • Natural: This term has no impact on animal welfare or the environment.

Produce Labels
How can you shop and eat responsibly when it comes to plant-based foods? It’s all about how the fruits and vegetables were grown and shipped. When browsing the produce aisles, look for the following terms:
  • Certified organic: Buying organic can help you avoid some added chemicals (like pesticides) that are often found in produce. Organic foods are grown in soil that hasn’t contained prohibited substances for at least three years prior to harvest. As we mentioned earlier, foods that are certified organic must pass inspections, so you can trust that the claim on the label is true.

    To quickly find organic foods in the grocery store, look for price look-up (PLU) codes that start with 9. A five-digit PLU number that starts with a 9 means the item is organic.

  • Food Justice Certified: If you want to make sure the produce you eat was harvested by workers who were treated fairly, look for the Food Justice Certified label. This means the farm where the produce came from had standards and protections for its workers, paid fair wages, and provided health insurance. And anything that’s labeled Food Justice Certified is also certified organic.

Another tip: Look for local produce in your grocery stores. Since it traveled shorter distances and was picked closer to peak ripeness, local produce is often fresher and tastier. Plus, you’re supporting your local economy.

Seafood Labels
In the seafood industry, it’s common for some fishing and farming practices to harm the ocean and our environment. This includes overfishing, bycatching, wild fish use, pollution, and more. Luckily, more than half of U.S. consumers say that buying sustainable seafood is personally important to them.

When you can, choose seafood that comes from well-managed, responsible fisheries. One way to know for sure is to check the Monterey Bay Aquarium Seafood Watch before you purchase fish or eat at a seafood restaurant. You can also look for these labels:
  • The blue Marine Stewardship Council (MSC) label or other certifications: When fish or seafood comes from fisheries that are certified to the MSC Fisheries Standard, it’ll have a vibrant blue label that says MSC. These fisheries are independently assessed, so you can trust that the label is factual.
  • Locally farmed: Similar to produce, if fish is local, it traveled shorter distances to the grocery store. The transportation required less fuel, the fish is fresher, and you’re supporting your local economy.
  • Wild caught: Wild fish often pose fewer health risks for consumers compared to farm-raised fish. Why? They grow freely rather than being stuck in a crowded cage. Also, wild fish aren’t exposed to antibiotics or pesticides.
  • Domestic (U.S.-based) fish: Surprisingly, the FDA doesn’t inspect all seafood imports. An estimated 70%–85% of seafood is imported from countries (like China and Vietnam) that lack thorough management laws. If you want to stay away from contaminated seafood, stick with seafood from the U.S.

Important note: The USDA organic certification does not yet apply to fish.

Smart Grocery Shopping for Sustainability
There’s a lot to decipher when you’re grocery shopping and trying to make healthier choices. The next time you shop for meat, dairy, produce, and seafood, keep this advice in mind. Use it to purchase the freshest, healthiest, most responsibly produced foods. Every effort (no matter how big or small) can make a difference.

RELATED: Use The Latest Food Trends As A Model For Healthy Eating

Learn more about how certain foods affect the environment! Take on our Go Green & Eat Clean 10 day challenge!
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Blog Nutrition 10/31/2022 8:48am CDT

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It isn't easy to find time for healthy eating. One average, nurses consume less fruits, veggies, and whole grains than other Americans. This domain covers recommended guidelines for dietary health, managing diet at work, and overcoming barriers to nutrition.