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Shedding Light on Labels: It’s “Natural,” but is it HEALTHY?

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Shopping at the grocery store or ordering at a restaurant can be daunting when you’re wanting to eat clean. How do you know what foods to avoid? What ingredients on a label should you watch out for? And just because something’s labeled “organic,” is it actually good for you?
My hope is to give you simple but helpful guidance on how to take the “pain” out of shopping. Labeling can be confusing and it can be hard to determine what is good and what is not.

When you see the following labels on anything (menu or item at the grocery store), here is what they mean:

Vegetarian- No animal flesh of any kind. Despite what some believe, this DOES indeed include fish and poultry. A product that is vegetarian cannot have meat in it but can still have other animal products such as eggs, cheese or yogurt.

Vegan- I will define this term in 2 ways. First, the literal definition would be a person who uses NO animal products. This includes not only things like meat, dairy, eggs and honey but also leather clothing/shoes/furniture, wool items, etc. The second and more common definition refers to someone who doesn’t eat animal products (but may not be strict about carrying a leather purse, etc.). A vegan product will have no animal flesh or secretions of any kind.

Natural- In terms of marketing/labeling, there are literally NO legal standards for this term. In other words, any company can use this on any product. You will often see this term on highly processed foods such as Pop-Tarts that have “natural fruit flavoring” or on things like granola bars that are loaded with processed sugars, preservatives and chemicals but have oats so they call it “natural.”

Healthy- Like “natural,” from a marketing/labeling standpoint, there are literally no legal stipulations that have to be maintained in order to use this term. Healthy is a relative word that you can’t depend on when looking for the best food options.

Raw- This term indicates that the item hasn’t been exposed to heat over 118 degrees, leaving its enzymes in tact.

Non-GMO- GMO stands for genetically modified organisms. These are “foods” whose genes have been altered in a dangerous way that has very serious implications on the human body. GMOs, as you may expect, literally alter your genes (and not in a positive way). The most common genetically modified foods are corn and soy but there are many others. It’s best to avoid corn and soy altogether (including anything that contains them/most processed foods). The catch- Although you do want to avoid GMOs, a product can be non-GMO but still have pesticides, hormones, etc. (This is why it’s important to buy organic.)

Organic- In most cases, this is a great thing to look for because if a product is labeled USDA organic, it legally must be grown and processed without any GMOs or toxic chemicals including herbicides, fungicides, pesticides, added preservatives, etc.

Anything- FREE
Gluten Free (could still have sugar, GMOs or preservatives)
Hormone Free (could still have antibiotics)
Chemical Free (doesn’t mean preservative-free or gluten-free, etc.)
Antibiotic Free (doesn’t mean hormone-free or nitrate-free, etc.)
Pesticide Free (this one is extra tricky because it could be pesticide-free but still have fungicides or other chemicals)
Sugar Free (could still have Splenda or aspartame- both toxic to the brain)
BHT free (could still have antibiotics or be processed improperly)

(The challenge when you are staying XYZ-Free is to remember that what you’re buying is free of that certain substance but perhaps not free of other toxins. For example, if you drink cow’s milk (which I do not recommend), you could purchase milk that say “BHT free;” however this same milk could still have antibiotics, pesticides, and be poorly processed.)

You get the idea. READ LABELS and don’t assume anything.

I have sought to simplify these definitions for the sake of clarity, but just know that people often have their own “version” of these terms. So if you’re not sure what someone means exactly, it’s best to ASK. For example, if you’re a strict vegan, eating at a vegan restaurant, be sure to ask if they use honey. Honey, although it has some great healing properties, is not technically vegan because it’s produced from bees. However, honey is still often used by many vegan cafes and stores. (The point here isn’t to avoid honey or not… just be sure to understand that you are getting what you think you’re getting.)

The best way to avoid most of the harmful and problematic substances (chemicals, GMOs, hormones, etc.) is to eat organic, vegan, whole foods. It’s much easier to know what you’re getting when you’re buying a plain fruit or vegetable or grain verses seeking to find a “clean” piece of processed food such as bread, cereals, chips, crackers, etc.

The best food you can probably get is that which you grow yourself, in good soil and without chemicals. In a perfect world, we’d all eat this way. However, if you’re like me, I’ll just say one word…BUSY! Plus I travel a lot. And when you’re traveling a lot, this doesn’t feel like a viable option… But don’t worry— There is still hope for you! The next best option if possible is to shop at local organic farms (usually via CSA’s or farmer’s markets). Often these small farms may not be certified organic due to the high cost of becoming USDA certified; however as long as they grow their food without chemicals, it’s usually excellent. Finally and still a great option: If you are shopping in a grocery store, choose USDA organic options and this will be great.

Again, if you eat organic, vegan, whole foods, you will eliminate over 90% of the toxins through the diet.

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