As a registered dietitian and supporter of eating real whole foods, I have always been extremely mindful of the food I put into my body. Once Jack started joining us at the table, I became even more concerned about my food choices, especially how the food is grown and processed. Grocery stores (and even farmers’ markets) don’t make it easy. Simply picking out a carton of eggs can be a real doozy — there are so many labels and terminology that it can be very confusing deciphering what they all mean. Luckily, I found a brand new website, FoodPrint.org, which has helped me to understand how my food is grown and processed and how to make the best decisions for my family. With their Food Label Guide and Real Food Encyclopedia on hand, making decisions during my shopping trips has become so much easier.
My family tries to stick to mainly a plant-based diet, adding in dairy, eggs, and the occasional fish and chicken. We prefer unadulterated, unprocessed foods that are as close to the state in which they were grown as possible. These foods are rich in nutrients and phytochemicals. This means that a lot of my shopping is done at the farmers’ market or through our CSA where I can get in season, local foods. But during the winter, I’m often doing more shopping at the grocery store, and I know that some of my decisions could be better. Before heading out for our weekly shopping trip, I look over the Food Label Guide to check out how my grocery list measures up. Kale, cauliflower, bananas, eggs, brown rice, cheese, almond milk, carrots, almond butter, and avocado are some of the staples that usually fill our cart.
For my produce, I discovered that the USDA Organic or Demeter Certified Biodynamic labels are the “gold standard”. Don’t know what Biodynamic means? I didn’t either. This label means that the farm or manufacturer has even stricter standards than organic and is focused on environmental sustainability and animal welfare. I was surprised and slightly disheartened to find that the Organic Label didn’t take animal welfare into account. For my produce and pantry items, this wasn’t as much of an issue (since those items are vegan) and I quickly learned that it was hard to find Demeter Certified Biodynamic items at my local grocery store. My focused remained primarily on organic items. I was also reminded that produce labeled “natural” and “pesticide-free” are often misleading because, even though they seem like good choices, these terms do not have any regulation and lack standardization in the food industry. Armed with this boost of knowledge, it was much easier to navigate the aisles of the market and to be able to streamline my purchases. For example, after reading the label guide, I decided to switch to organic brown rice, instead of the non-organic variety I sometimes buy.
If you eat animal protein
I already knew most of the information in the produce label guide (basically organic is better than non-organic), but the overall label guide was especially helpful when shopping for meat. My family’s main sources of animal protein come from dairy, eggs, chicken, and fish. We try to limit our animal consumption for environmental and animal welfare reasons. Conventional and factory farmed beef, pork, lamb, and farmed salmon create the most greenhouse gases, particularly methane, which leads to environmental damage. If you choose to consume animal protein, it is important to be a mindful consumer. The label guide is super mobile-friendly so, in the middle of the overwhelming egg aisle, I was able to pull up the egg label guide on my phone. Looking over the egg cartons at my store with the guide in hand, I knew that the eggs labeled Certified Humane and Organic were my best option.
The Food Label Guide also has dedicated guides for pork, chicken, eggs, dairy, and beef, which can help you choose proteins that have been raised humanely, not given growth hormones or antibiotics, and have been fed a diet close to what they would consume naturally. For chicken, I discovered that Animal Welfare Approved, Organic and Demeter Biodynamic were best. Unfortunately, Demeter Biodynamic wasn’t an option for chicken at my store, but it’s a label I’ll look out for when shopping elsewhere. For other animal products, “organic”, “Animal Welfare Approved”, “Global Animal Partnership Step 5+”, “PCO Certified Grassfed”, or “NOFA Certified Grassfed” labels should be your top contenders. These labels certify that consideration was taken for both the animal’s health and the environment. Unfortunately, FoodPrint doesn’t have a fish label guide yet, but they told me it’s coming soon! They do have a great page all about the sustainability of fish (see below).
Dig a little deeper
With global warming having such a direct correlation with the food industry, shopping local, buying products which are sustainable, and reducing plastic bags and excessive packaging are incredibly important too. Along with the label guide, FoodPrint also has a Real Food Encyclopedia, which helps you navigate the foodprint of a particular food and assists in making more sustainable purchases. Take shrimp, for example. According to the Real Food Encyclopedia, this crustacean is the most consumed seafood in the United States with an average consumption of 4 pounds per American per year (I was shocked by this!). The shrimp industry is riddled with issues ranging from human abuse and slavery to destroying ecosystems and pollution. After reading about shrimp on foodprint, I would probably opt out of shrimp and consider a more sustainable seafood item like Black Cod, which is one of the most plentiful and sustainable fish on the West Coast of the United States.
The Real Food Encyclopedia includes over 200 ingredients and has a list of concerns to be aware of with each food. It also provides ideas and tips on how to purchase the item sustainably and how to cook it.
Even as an expert, I can be overwhelmed by the plethora of information and options at the grocery store. The lack of standardization in labeling can be troubling and, unless you arm yourself with the knowledge and the tools, it can be very easy to be swayed into purchasing an item that seems virtuous, but in reality is not. For me, the thought of completely overhauling my food shopping all at once is daunting. To make it doable, I am aiming to take small, meaningful steps that will lead to permanent changes with long-term implications for my family’s health, animal welfare, and the environment. My first step is educating myself by reading more about the foodprint of my typical food purchases and bringing reusable totes when shopping. Next, I am going to start to question what food labels truly mean - especially the “natural” and “hormone-free” terms. Finally, I am going to continue to shop at my local farmers’ market and grocery stores, but I will make purchases which limit my foodprint and help to ensure a healthy food system for my family now and in the future.
The top five ways you can use FoodPrint.org
Learn how to shop sustainably by decoding labels and reading about your foods’ foodprint
Use the mobile version of the food label guide while you shop
Understand how to compost and minimize food waste
Find out what’s in season
Become an educated consumer and read up on issues concerning animal welfare, food policy, and our food production system
This post was created in partnership with Foodprint.org. All ideas are my own. Please visit Foodprint.org for more information on the Food Label Guide, Real Food Encyclopedia, and for advice on how to make food choices which are more beneficial to people, animals, and the environment.