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How to Read Food Labels at the Grocery Store

The organic debate can be polarizing, and I want to throw it out there and simply say—eat your fruits and vegetables regardless. I have found myself in the grocery store (because we don't always have the luxury of Whole Foods) tossing my hands in the air in frustration that I can't find anything on my list that's organic. Sometimes even more frustrated when the organic options are tightly wrapped up in plastic. Grocery shopping fluctuates on a spectrum for me from being my all time favorite hobby to being excruciatingly aggravating. The solution? Well, it's something I'm trying to work on for myself, and that is to not be a perfectionist when it comes to buying organic. Because ultimately eating a vegetable-based diet is better than avoiding vegetables altogether. However whenever you get the chance to buy organic, I strongly suggest you do so.

Here is your ultimate guide to reading food labels at the grocery store so you can eat the healthiest foods and avoid putting unnecessary junk, like pesticides, in your body—and that of your family's.

What are the health risks of pesticides?

There are nearly six billion pounds of pesticides used around the globe annually. These pesticides are known to contaminate our food, air, and water. Pesticides can cause hormone disruption, skin, eye, and lung irritation, brain and nervous system toxicity, cancer, blood disorders, reproductive effects, nerve disorders, and birth defects. Anyone who regularly eats food grown with pesticides, and those who live downwind or downstream of sprayed crops are going to have a greater risk of these health consequences. Infants and children are also at a greater risk because their bodies are still developing. Children who live in areas that are heavy with pesticides have been shown to develop impaired hand-eye coordination, decreased physical stamina, short-term memory impairment, and trouble drawing.

Even after washing produce, pesticides still remain on non-organic produce. The environmental working group's annual report on the Dirty Dozen found up to 17 different pesticides on a single strawberry and 15 pesticides on a single grape.

Choosing to buy organic reduces your exposure to chemicals that disrupt your body's natural rhythms, and you will help protect the planet by choosing sustainable methods that don't rely on chemicals.

Food Labels

Reading food labels can be confusing, and seeing a variety of similar labels raises a lot of questions. For example, is organic the same as natural? What's the difference between fair trade and cruelty-free? Read on to discover the true meaning of common food labels.

Fair Trade

Fair trade labels indicate that farmers and workers, typically in developing countries, were given a fair wage and worked in acceptable conditions while growing and packaging the product.

GMO-free, non-GMO, or no GMOs

What are GMOs anyways? GMOs are genetically modified organisms that have been genetically engineered with DNA from bacteria, viruses, or other plants and animals. GMO-free products simply mean that they are produced without being genetically engineered through the use of GMOs.


Yes, products can actually be labeled as "healthy." These products must be low in saturated fat and contain limited amounts of cholesterol and sodium. Generally, these products must also contain at least 10% of vitamins A and C, iron, calcium, protein, and fiber. Take caution when buying packaged foods labeled as healthy to make sure they're not loaded with added sugars. When it comes to shopping healthy, it's best to buy whole foods.


No standards exist for this label except when used on meat and poultry products. If you're shopping for fruits or vegetables, do not mistake this label for organic.


Did you know meat and vegetables are sometimes exposed to radiation energy to kill disease-causing bacteria and reduce the incidence of foodborne illness? This label means your food was not exposed to radiation.


All organic agricultural farms and products must meet the following guidelines, and they must be verified by a USDA-approved independent agency.

  • Abstain from the application of prohibited materials (including synthetic fertilizers, pesticides, and sewage sludge) for 3 years prior to certification and then continually throughout their organic license.
  • Prohibit the use of GMOs and irradiation.
  • Employ positive soil building, conservation, manure management, and crop rotation practices.
  • Avoid contamination during processing of organic products.
  • Keep records of all operations.

The USDA organic seal means that 95-100% of its ingredients are organic. Products with 70-95% organic ingredients can still advertise "organic ingredients" on the front of the package. Products with less than 70% organic ingredients can identify "organic ingredients" on the side panel.

Organic foods prohibit the use of hydrogenation and trans fats.

What are the Dirty Dozen?

The Dirty Dozen is the Environmental Working Group's list of the most contaminated fruits and vegetables. If you're in a situation where you have to buy non-organic produce, try to avoid these fruits and vegetables on the dirty dozen list. The Dirty Dozen Plus includes several additional vegetables that may not be as high in overall pesticide content but contain small levels of highly toxic pesticides. Here is the Dirty Dozen Plus:

  1. Strawberries
  2. Apples
  3. Nectarines
  4. Peaches
  5. Celery
  6. Grapes
  7. Cherries
  8. Spinach
  9. Tomatoes
  10. Sweet bell peppers
  11. Cherry tomatoes
  12. Cucumbers
  13. Hot peppers
  14. Kale/Collard greens

The Clean Fifteen are the EWG's list of fruits and vegetables with the least amount of contamination. If you must buy non-organic, stick to this list.

  1. Avocados
  2. Sweet corn
  3. Pineapples
  4. Cabbage
  5. Sweet peas (frozen)
  6. Onions
  7. Asparagus
  8. Mangoes
  9. Papaya
  10. Kiwi
  11. Eggplants
  12. Honeydew melon
  13. Grapefruit
  14. Cantaloupe
  15. Cauliflower

Start a conversation about your health today.

Contact Kate for a free health consultation to discuss your biggest health concerns!

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