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Stocking a Healthy Pantry: How to Decode Food Labels

https://californiaoliveranch.com/olive-oil-101/what-to-look-for/To kick off 2017, we’re taking a closer look at how healthy our kitchen is, and thought we’d share with you the ways we’re revamping our pantry!

First things first, how do you know that the products you’re buying are what they say they are? This is especially challenging when buying packaged food products, but even whole, un-processed ingredients can have confusing and vague labels attached to them. Find below four common buzzwords, decoded, and how to read the new FDA nutrition labels.

  1. Non-GMO

Especially if you purchase California Olive Ranch extra virgin olive oil, you are most likely familiar with the little blue box label with a butterfly and “Non-GMO Project Verified” stamp on the front of many food products. GMO stands for “genetically modified organism,” which means that a plant, animal, or organism has had its DNA altered to produce genes that aren’t normally present in nature. This may make the plant, for example, larger or more drought resistant, but can also produce unknown toxins and/or allergens. A Non-GMO label means that a product has gone through an extensive evaluation and all ingredients are guaranteed to not contain any GMOs.

  1. Organic

If fruits or vegetables are labeled ‘organic,’ this means that the soil the produce was grown and cultivated in has not had any pesticides applied to it for three years before harvesting. For meat products, an organic designation means that the animals were fed organic food and were not given growth hormones or antibiotics. It also alerts the consumer that the animals were raised in ‘natural’ living conditions, which generally translates to having regular access to an open pasture space. Packaged foods with a USDA Organic label are a little less strict – a product can claim to be organic if 95% of its ingredients are organic, which in this case also means that there are no artificial dyes and food additives, preservatives, or genetically modified organisms. Pesticides are allowed, but only non-synthetic ones. If a package says ‘Made with Organic Ingredients,’ the product must have at least 70% organic ingredients and contain no GMOs.

  1. Natural

Natural,’ or ‘All-Natural’ labels do not mean organic, and can be misleading since they are largely unregulated by the FDA. In general, this label means that the product does not contain added colors, artificial flavors, or synthetic substances – the things you would normally not expect to find in food in the first place. The best way to see if a product is natural is to simply look at the ingredients list.

  1. Whole-Wheat

To understand whole-wheat, it’s helpful to know a little bit about grains. When talking about wheat, rye, oats, and barley, we’re really talking about the edible seeds from grasses. Each whole grain seed has the same layers surrounding the germ – the endosperm, bran, and husk. Most grains are refined before they arrive in our supermarkets, a process that includes removing the husk and bran. Unfortunately, this process removes the parts of the grain that are rich in B vitamins and fiber. In the case of breads and baked goods that contain wheat flour, a ‘Whole-Grain’ or ‘Made with Whole Grains’ designation has vague meaning. When the first two ingredients of a product are listed as wheat or grain flours, the entire product may have anywhere between 1-49% whole grains. So if your bread has a first ingredient of ‘Unbleached Wheat Flour’ and a second ingredient of ‘Whole Wheat Flour,’ for example, it may very well still be mostly made up of refined flour.


In May of 2016, the FDA along with First Lady Michelle Obama unveiled a revised version of the nutrition label we’ll see on every packaged food in the grocery store. The label will still look almost identical to the old version at first glance, but there are a few subtle yet very meaningful changes! We took note of a few that will help you shop smarter and stock your healthy pantry:

  1. Serving Sizes

A controversial update for many, the new nutritional labels will now give the nutrition facts for more reasonable serving sizes, based on what people actually eat at one time. (For example, have you ever actually measured out ½ cup of ice cream?!) It is important to be mindful here though that the serving size listed is not necessarily the recommended amount that you serve yourself. Additionally, some serving sizes will actually go down, such as with yogurt, that will now have a serving size of 6 oz. instead of 8 oz.

  1. Added Sugars

This is an entirely new category on the nutrition label that is meant to help consumers distinguish between natural sugars and processed sugars. Natural sugars would be those naturally occurring such as in dairy products and fruit, while added sugars are in the category of cane sugar and corn syrup. The added sugars will also be listed with a percentage of recommended daily value. The FDA now recommends that added sugars amount for no more than 10% of daily caloric intake.

  1. Multi-Serving Products

There will now be two columns on the nutrition panels for food products that may contain multiple servings but are often consumed at once (such as a bag of chips or 16 oz. soda). Again, this is the FDA’s response to unrealistic, or at least rarely followed, serving sizes on many packaged foods and drinks, which can lead to vastly underestimating our intake of certain nutritional categories. Similarly, packages or containers that are between one and two servings — such as 20-ounce bottles of sodas — will now be labeled as one serving.

  1. Fat

These days, research has shown that the type of fat a person consumes is more important in terms of overall health than the amount of fat one consumes. So, on the new label, the “Calories from Fat” line will be removed. The subcategory “Saturated Fat” will still be required, now along with “Trans Fat” as well. Saturated Fats (mainly occurring in meat and dairy products) and Trans Fats (occurring when foods are fried in partially hydrogenated oils, or when liquid oils are made into solid fats, such as in shortening or margarine) can contribute to a lift in the LDL, or “bad,” cholesterol, and the FDA recommends that these fats are limited in order to reduce the risk of coronary heart disease.

To us, a healthy pantry means having plenty of unprocessed foods and minimally-processed products with short and simple ingredients lists. It’s important to learn how to read both the front and back labels on packaged foods so you know what you’re buying and can stock the healthiest kitchen possible as a foundation for wholesome meals. Stay tuned for more healthy pantry tips!


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