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A Mindful Guide to Labels & Ingredients

The question I get asked most often is, where do I start? And while we all have different priorities when it comes to living a more healthy lifestyle, there is one thing we all have in common- the need to eat. We eat food everyday, and yet, there is so much confusion around what we should be eating and what we should avoid, that by the time you're done googling the latest trend, you reach for whatever is closest and call it a day.

Well, friends, today I'm taking you on a (virtual) stroll through the grocery aisles to show you how I read labels and approach ingredients in a simple, mindful way. I hope this cuts through some of the confusion and leaves you feeling prepared to navigate the aisles with ease and confidence.


Let's start by walking through some of the common certifications and labels you'll find on food packaging, shall we?


Fair Trade: Typically found on coffee, chocolate / cocoa, vanilla, and sugar, the Fair Trade Certified seal ensures that the farmers and workers earned a fair, living wage and the working environment is safe for the workers and sustainable for the planet.

Non-GMO: Foods with the Non-GMO Project Verified label do not contain any genetically modified ingredients, but there are no regulations around the pesticides used in growing crops or feed given to animals.

Organic: Foods labeled with the USDA Certified Organic Seal are held to strict regulations prohibiting the use of synthetic pesticides and fertilizers in crops, and animals must also be fed an organic diet and provided access to pasture. It is important to note that ALL certified organic food is also certified non-GMO (regardless of it bearing the label), but not all non-GMO is organic.


Pasture Raised: Typically found on eggs, poultry and meat, a pasture-raised label means the animal is given access to pasture, typically spending most (if not all) of their life outdoors with plenty of room to move. It does not, however, have any regulations around the feed quality (organic, non-GMO, etc.).


Grass Fed: Typically found on dairy and meat, grass fed simply means the animal was fed a diet of only grass and other forage-able greens, rather than corn and soy that is commonly found in commercial feed. Like with pasture raised, it does not have any regulations around the grass quality (organic, non-GMO, etc.).


Glyphosate Residue Free: This is a newer label in the food world, and foods bearing the seal have been third party tested to ensure that they do not contain any glyphosate (a.k.a. Round-up) residue. While foods that are certified organic should not have any residue, it is actually common for them to have trace amounts due to soil contamination, water run-off, and drifting spray from neighboring, conventional farms.


It is common to see a product bearing more than one of these labels or seals on their packaging, and, as you'll see below, I often look for various combinations when grocery shopping. In general, my philosophy is to buy the best quality you can find, that is within your budget, and aligns with your ethics.


Ok, now that we've covered the basics, let's shop!


Produce: I try to buy organic whenever possible, but if something is not available, I always refer to the EWG's dirty dozen and clean fifteen lists before purchasing conventional. The dirty dozen are the 12 fruits and veggies most heavily sprayed with pesticides, which I try to avoid, while the clean fifteen are the 15 that have the lowest level of pesticide residue.


Eggs / Dairy / Poultry / Meat: I always buy organic eggs, dairy, poultry and meat (beef), and prefer it to be organic and either pasture raised or grass fed. You will typically see "pasture raised" on eggs and poultry, while "grass fed" is more commonly found on milk, other dairy and meat. Again, buy the best quality you can find, that is within your budget, and aligns with your ethics.


Fish: Fish is tricky because we have less control over what the fish are eating, so you'll notice that fish is never labeled as organic, etc.. I usually buy wild-caught vs. farm-raised, but there are some good, sustainable farms out there. A great resource is the Seafood Watch from the Monterey Bay Aquarium. They even have an app and a pocket guide so you can reference right from the fish counter!


Packaged & Pantry Items: The middle aisles of the store are where the most confusion lies. There are more options to compare and more ingredients to translate. The first thing I do is look for the labels and certifications that are most important to me, which on packaged items are organic, fair trade, and glyphosate free. If that is not available, I look for non-GMO verified items. Once I find a product that matches my criteria, I read the actual ingredients. Can I pronounce everything? How many ingredients are listed? Do I know what each of the ingredients are? Here are the ingredients I always try to avoid, and what I look for instead.

  • artificial food coloring, typically listed as Blue 1, Red 40, or similar (look for vegetable based dyes, like beets, spirulina, and turmeric)

  • sweeteners such as high fructose corn syrup, aspartame, sucralose, stevia (look for organic cane sugar, honey, dates, date or coconut sugar, or maple syrup)

  • gums of any kind, like guar, xanthan, etc. which are thickeners/ fillers (these are not necessary, just look for real ingredients, not fillers)

  • carrageenan, another thickener (see above, not needed)

  • artificial or even "natural " flavoring, which is a clever way for condensing several "proprietary" ingredients into one (look for actual flavors, like garlic, pepper, cinnamon, citrus peels and juices, and other herbs and spices)

  • certain oils such as canola, vegetable and palm oil, as well as any oil that is "partially hydrogenated" (look for less processed oils, such as avocado, coconut, olive and even butter or ghee)

  • anything that seems unnecessary, or you can add in yourself, like salt

I personally love to shop for most of my pantry items and other goods at Thrive Market. Feel free to check out my "favorites" for some inspiration. And if you're not already a Thrive member, I highly, highly recommend joining (not an ad, just a loyal customer).


Little Edits If it still seems overwhelming, start with one grocery aisle, or even one item, and go from there. Just like with anything new, this will get easier over time. You'll find quality ingredients from brands you trust and all it will require is a quick glance or two to know if the product meets your needs.

If you take anything away from this blog post, let it be this: Aim to buy the best quality, whole, real food you can find, that is within your budget, and aligns with your ethics. If it is in a package and you cannot pronounce the ingredients or it has more ingredients than you can count on your hands, consider putting it back on the shelf.


Happy shopping!

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