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Tips for Making Sure Ingredients on Food Labels Are Actually Natural

By Kate Harveston — Many food items on the shelves of grocery stores today have misleading labels. Sometimes I think I’m purchasing an all-natural product when really the seal on the package doesn’t guarantee anything about the ingredients in my food. Instead of guessing at what I’m eating, I started following these tips that you can try too. Try them out today to make sure the ingredients on your food labels are truly natural.

Look for the USDA Seal

You may think that purchasing food with an organic seal means you’re purchasing top-quality, nutritional items. The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) uses the organic seal for food that meets a certain farming standard, including cycling of resources, ecological balance, and biodiversity conservation. For farms that raise livestock, this means the animals do not get any growth hormones or antibiotics.

While these are worthy health benefits, studies have found that there is not a significant difference between organic and nonorganic foods. The main difference is that organic food does not have as much exposure to pesticides and antibiotic-resistant bacteria. Furthermore, the USDA’s mission for organic food is to cultivate sustainably farmed resources, not foods packed with nutritional value.

If eating organic is an important part of your lifestyle, look for the USDA seal on your organic products. This seal requires your food be at least 95 percent free of any synthetic additives. Any foods labeled as organic without the USDA seal do not necessarily follow this regulation and could end up no different than regular food items.

I used to follow a strictly “organic” diet. These products are often more expensive and difficult to find. From meat to vegetables, I was always paying more for products I thought were completely free of pesticides and additives. Today, I look for the USDA seal instead, so I can know for sure that the food I’m putting in my body is free, or almost free, of synthetic additives.

Read Ingredients in Chronological Order

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Another good way to make sure the food you’re eating is natural is to read the ingredients on your food labels carefully. While you might see sensational labeling on the front of food packages, it’s the fine print on the nutrition label on the back that can help you understand what you are purchasing and putting into your body.

Start by establishing what’s important to you. Do you want to consume less salt or avoid additional sugar? Look for those items on a package’s ingredient list and make sure the nutritional value on the front aligns with the ingredients on the back. You can also follow these tips for reading ingredients:

  • Watch out for chemical-sounding names. Ingredients should have short names you can understand without additives.
  • Pay close attention to the first few ingredients since the list goes by order of weight. The first few ingredients make up the bulk of what you’re eating.
  • Look for foods high in fiber to help with digestion.
  • Check the calorie count. “Healthy” foods that are high in calories are not necessarily a good, natural option.
  • See how much sodium is in your product per serving size. Consuming too much salt can lead to high blood pressure and heart disease.
  • Also, watch for the amount of sugar per serving size. The labels in the back do not differentiate between natural and added sugars, so make sure you’re eating natural sugars found in fruits. Jelly Belly was recently sued over this when a consumer realized the company’s use of evaporated cane juice in its Sports Beans didn’t match up with the product’s packaging.

One of my own goals for my diet involves watching the amount of sugar I’m eating. While sugar gives me a lot of energy when I first consume it, I usually come to a crashing halt just a short time later. When I look at the back of my food packages, I pay extra close attention to the sugar content. Once I check the grams of sugar, I look for any hidden ingredients that are pure sugar with a different, chemical-sounding name. This helps me better control the amount of sugar I’m eating each day.

Check the Sodium

It was always a running joke in my family that my little brother loved salt. He would sprinkle a hearty dose of salt on top of everything — vegetables, meat, side dishes and more. As a family, we never put too much thought into the amount of salt in our diets, or my brother’s, until he developed high blood pressure at 15. A diet full of salt can lead to high blood pressure, heart attacks, dementia, and kidney disease. 

If one of your goals is to eat less sodium, don’t search for natural foods at the grocery store. A natural label doesn’t guarantee anything about the ingredients in your food since the U.S. doesn’t regulate the use of the word on the packaging. You should always look at the back of the package to check for any chemicals and preservatives in natural food items.

One area of natural labeling that you can trust is in meat. The USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) now requires that meat with a “natural” label must disclose any salt solutions injected into it to give it a longer shelf life, more moisture, and additional flavor while cooking. Check your meat before you buy it to see if it contains any salt solutions since that means it could have up to five times the amount of salt in regular meat.

Meet Your Farmers

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One of the best ways to know exactly where your food comes from is to know the farmers who grow or raise it. For example, if you want antibiotic-free food or food raised without pesticides, try finding a local farmer whose values align with your own. You won’t have to guess at the labels you see in the grocery store, and you can ask the farmer any questions you have about how they processed the food.

Some other options that are great to find local farmers for include:

  • Cage-free
  • Farm-raised
  • Free-range or free-roaming
  • Grass-fed
  • Hormone-free
  • Pastured

I’ve lived in both urban and rural areas, and I’m always surprised at the accessibility of local farmers. Even in a city, you can often find a farmer’s market where you can meet the individuals who grow or raise your food. One of my favorite weekend activities involves shopping at a local farmer’s market. I always purchase my milk at my local farmer’s market from a farmer I know.

Pay Attention to Serving Sizes

How many times have you purchased an item thinking it was one serving size only to eat the whole thing before checking the back label? That can turn into a problem when it comes to natural ingredients. While the amount of sodium on the back of a can of soup may seem like the perfect, natural amount for your daily diet, it quickly goes overboard when you realize there’s more than one serving in that can.

First, you need to understand the difference between serving sizes and portion sizes. A portion is the amount of food you eat at one time, while a serving size is the amount of food a product’s label suggests you eat. The label will also list the number of ingredients per portion size. For example, a nutrition label that says a product has 11 grams of sugar means that is in one serving size. If the packaging includes two serving sizes that you eat in one sitting, that’s 22 grams of sugar.

Make sure you read the label ahead of time not only to make sure the ingredients are natural but also that the amount you eat in one serving isn’t too much.

I’m guilty of this myself. I love a good “treat yourself” night with a movie and a whole pint of Ben & Jerry’s, but once I get started it’s difficult for me to stop. Instead of eating the whole container, I’ve started scooping out the appropriate portion size in a bowl and hiding the container in the back of my freezer. It helps me consume a more natural amount of calories and other ingredients in one serving than all at once.

Look for Minimally Processed Foods

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Processed foods aren’t natural foods since they get altered from the way they’re found in nature. Highly processed foods typically contain more sugar, salt, and unhealthy fats and have fewer nutrients such as vitamins, minerals, and fiber. When you go to the store, you have options when it comes to processed foods. Vegetables such as a bag of prewashed spinach are typically minimally processed, while food such as candy and doughnuts are highly processed.

If you want to eat more natural products, look for unprocessed or minimally processed foods and eat them more often. They tend to be healthier choices and include items such as:

  • Fresh vegetables and fruit
  • Frozen or canned vegetables and fruit
  • Milk and plain yogurt
  • Whole grains
  • Fresh or frozen beef, chicken, fish, and pork
  • Dried or canned legumes

Before purchasing something you believe is unprocessed or minimally processed, continue to read the label on the back, looking for added salt, sugar and more. Foods with these additives aren’t as minimally processed as you would believe.

Find 100 Percent Grass-Fed Meat

I currently refrain from eating meat. While I love meat, I didn’t want to have to constantly worry about putting harmful pesticides and additives in my body. However, if I know where my meat came from, I will occasionally indulge in it. That is to say, I only ever eat grass-fed beef from local farms that I’ve researched extensively to ensure their practices are ethical, sustainable and natural.

When it comes to the meat you consume such as beef, it’s important to understand the distinction between grass-fed vs. organic. One hundred percent grass-fed beef comes from cows that freely graze on grass their entire lives. Most grass-fed beef is also organic, meaning the cows ate pure, pesticide-free grass. However, not all grass-fed beef is also organic. It can come from cows that eat organic grain instead of grass.

There are several nutritional differences. Beef from only grass-fed cows contains two or three times more conjugated linoleic acids (CLAs) than grain-finished beef. These CLAs are healthy fats that can help improve cholesterol levels and reduce the risk of cancer and cardiovascular disease. Grass-fed beef also has more antioxidants, such as vitamins E and A.

When you’re trying to choose between grass-fed or organic at the store, you may want to opt for grass-fed since it’s higher-quality and packed with more nutrients. While the USDA organic seal does not necessarily mean cows are grass-fed, you can search for beef that has both the organic and grass-fed seals for the best possible meat.

Watch Low-Fat Options

When I was in college, I went through a pattern of disordered eating where I only ate low-fat items or hardly anything at all. It wasn’t until I took my first nutrition class during my senior year that I learned about healthy fats and how important they are for your health.

It’s easy to see a low-fat version of a product at the store and quickly throw it into your cart believing it’s healthier and more natural than the full-fat product. However low-fat options often contain hidden ingredients to make up for the taste the products lose when fat is removed.

Typically, low-fat foods contain more sugar. They also might have more trans-fats and carbs that are more unhealthy than eating the full-fat option. Plus, the more refined sugars in a product mean a greater risk of diabetes and other health issues down the road.

Eating Natural Starts by Eating Smart

Eating more natural foods is a worthy goal and can significantly improve your health just as it did mine. While there are many distrustful food labels, it’s all about learning to be smart when reading the ingredient list and knowing which foods are best for you. Start by being skeptical and you’ll soon find foods with all the ingredients you want to incorporate into your diet.

Kate Harveston is a health and wellness writer from Pennsylvania. She is passionate about teaching people how to live more all-natural and sustainable lives. You can find more of her work at sites like Greatist, Care2 and the Environmental News Network, as well as at her blog, So Well, So Woman.

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