Understanding Food Labels

For the health of your body and wallet: Understanding Food Labels
By Dr M Hallee ND.

Labels on food packages have become overwhelming and almost comical at times. In health food and grocery stores alike, customers are hit with words like “Organic”, “free-trade”, “gluten-free”, “free-range”, “artisan”, “natural” and so on. All of the fancy lingo can be confusing. Often the patients I see understand the terms still do not know whether choosing one option over another makes any difference to their health. While each person is different and will require slightly different needs, here are some general explanations of food labels and which are important for healthy living.

“Artisan”: Probably one of the best gimmick descriptors on health packages. As the name would imply, this should mean that the product was hand-made by an artist or craftsman/woman. This name tends to be over-used; I’ve even seen “Artisan water”. Artisan does not necessarily mean health benefits. Smaller scale production may mean better quality, but not always.

“Certified Organic”: This means that most (but not necessarily all) of the contents of the item are produced without the use of chemicals (in soil or sprays). Many patients ask if it is important to eat organic. The simple answer is yes. I say yes in reference mainly to fruits and vegetables. Studies have compared the nutrient component of organic verses non-organic produce and the organic ones win it. My general rule is: if you can afford to eat all organic, do it; if you can afford to eat mostly organic, make your organic choices be all of your produce; if you can only afford to have a bit of organic products, buy non-organic produce except the “dirty dozen”. The dirty dozen is a list of certain crops that are known to be concentrated with chemicals that should be avoided, which include apples, strawberries, blueberries, celery, peaches/nectarines, peppers (bell and spicy), spinach, cucumbers, tomato, snap peas, potatoes and kale/collard greens.

FoodLabel01“Free-range”: A term that is usually applied to land animals (the health equivalent for fish is “wild”, which means they are not farmed), “free-range” means that the animal has been able to move around outside. “Free-range” meat is a choice that is good for more than the conscience of ethical animal treatment. When an animal has the opportunity to be outside, roam around and eat more grass and vegetation, they are generally healthier and become better for us to eat. Chicken’s eggs are a good example because there are more terms that you’ll find on egg cartons. Here, the use of “organic” means the chicken food is organic but does not tell us if the chicken was eating vegetation outside. It should mean, however, that chemicals and antibiotics won’t be found in the eggs. “Free-run” is a step down from free-range; it means that the chickens have space to move around, but that may not be outside. “Cage-free” is then a further step down and, as it implies, the birds are merely not in a cage. For eggs, I recommend going to your local farmer’s market and talking to the farmers. The farmer may not be considered “organic” and that’s ok; ask what the chickens are fed and if they are able to be on grass for some of their day to determine if the conditions are suitable. Otherwise, grocery store eggs that are free-range usually have the best ratio of affordability to health.

“Fair-trade”: This term has more to do with whether or not everyone involved with the product was paid fairly or not for the work they did. This term does not imply any health benefits, except mental health if you are concerned with ethical labour laws in foreign countries.

“Gluten-free”: Gluten is a protein found in certain grains, such as wheat. This protein can cause serious health problems in those with Celiac disease, but much of the population also does not digest it well either. In my practice I have seen patients who have gone gluten-free and solved health problems they have had for years, such as high blood pressure, excess weight, skin problems, heart problems etc. The tricky part is that, while simply eating “gluten-free” products helps, it may not cure problems entirely because the substances that are used to replace gluten can be pretty bad too. Know your own “problem” foods and read labels to avoid them.

“Light”: We would all like to think that choosing the “light” version of a product would have less fat or less calories, but read the label, as that may not be the case. Sometimes “light” can be on a label because the product is lighter in colour. Be aware also of products that are light in calories- compare them to the non-light version and see if that reason is because there is less fat but more sugar. Unless the fat removed was “saturated” or “trans” fat, buying the light version may not be better.


“Natural flavours”: Products can be called “natural” and the ingredients list may have “natural flavours”, but to get that natural flavour there may have been a lot of processing to that product. I tell my patients, the truly “natural” items in the store are the ones that don’t have ingredient lists (i.e. in the produce and meat departments).

“Non-GMO”: GMO stands for genetically modified organism. The genetic engineering that has occurred to food crops was seen as a step forward in technology for farmers, making their lives easier. It has now made many farmers’ lives more difficult and caused health concerns for the population who eat “GMOs”. Eating non-GMO foods is particularly important for products made from corn or soy.

“Reduced in sodium”: Be careful with this one. A company only has to have a lower sodium (salt) level than a previous recipe. There may still be enough salt in the “reduced” version to salt your road in the winter. Also, while the standard North American diet is heavy in salt, some people may not need to worry about a bit of extra salt. If you’re concerned about your heart and blood pressure, you may not even find a difference with cutting out sodium; there may be other things you should cut out instead.

“Vegan”: This is a phrase that has been around for a while and is also seen on product packaging. A vegan is typically one who does not eat any animal product, including eggs and milk. Some vegans, for moral reasons, will also not eat honey or table sugar because of the use of animals in their processes. I warn all those eating a vegan diet, especially if doing so for health reasons, beware that many “vegan” foods often have more fillers, flavours and additives than comparable non-vegan products. Learn what is good and bad for your own body and read labels carefully. Also make sure you are getting all of the essential nutrients from your foods, particularly iron, B12 and essential amino acids.

The best way to eat healthy is to know what foods are good and bad for you personally and buy accordingly. As an easy rule to follow, eating packaged goods is less healthy than non-packaged whole foods. Sadly, companies like to use as many of these trendy labels as possible so that they are more desirable. These labels can still be very helpful to identify which foods to buy. Knowing the difference between which are important for you or not can help save you money and benefit your health.

For further information, see a health care provider for more tips on how to keep you and your family healthy or, if you have a specific question, use the comments box below or email Today Media to have it answered.

Dr Hallee headshotDr Monique Hallee BScHK, ND
Dr Hallee is a naturopathic doctor who has a family practice, with expertise in women’s health. She has been around the world to learn various aspects of health care and is now located in Langley BC at Meditrine Naturopathic Medical Clinic.

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