Health Food Labels: What To Look For

How about some butylated hydroxyanisole in your morning cereal?

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What’s the difference between foods labeled “all-natural” and “organic”? Just what are all those hard-to-pronounce ingredients on the back of the cereal box? Food labels and nutrition facts are supposed to be easy for the average consumer to understand, but sometimes it feels like you need a PhD to decipher them. Grocery shopping shouldn’t have to be as shrouded in mystery as the plot of Twin Peaks. Read on to discover exactly what to look for in on food labels and nutrition facts.

Food Labels

If you’re looking for healthy meal options, you’re probably drawn to food labels that say things like “natural” and “organic.” These labels, however, can sometimes be misleading. Know the difference in these key food label phrases to shop smarter.


Sixty percent of Americans reported purchasing a food item because it contained the words “all-natural” on the label. To most consumers, “natural” foods are assumed to be free from dyes, preservatives, and other additives. However, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) does not regulate foods that claim to be a “natural” product. According to the FDA, “From a food science perspective, it is difficult to define a food product that is ‘natural’ because the food has probably been processed and is no longer the product of the earth.” For example, you might have recently purchased a box of “natural raisin bran cereal,” only to find out upon examining the label that the cereal actually contains several chemical additives. Because the cereal contains grains and raisins—both technically food items found in nature—it can be marketed as a natural food.


Unlike the natural label, foods marked as “organic” have gone through strict labeling requirements. If a food item has the iconic green and white “USDA Certified Organic” sticker on it, you can be safely assured it met the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s guidelines. These guidelines restrict the kinds of soil fertilizers that can be used, as well as the use of antibiotics/hormones in animals. Be wary, however, of prepackaged goods that are labeled “organic.” These items are only required to contain 70 percent organic items, leaving wiggle to room to include synthetic additives.


Genetically modified organisms (GMOs) have been a hot-button topic for the past couple of years, despite the fact that most people don’t actually understand what they are or what they’re used for. What exactly are genetically modified crops? GMOs are, simply, foods that have been bioengineered. However, this doesn’t mean your corn on the cob has suddenly turned into the Terminator (and it won’t turn you into a robot either). Instead, crops are usually engineered to become more drought-resistant or produce higher yields. Genetically modified foods are a fiercely debated issue, and in 2016, President Obama signed a law requiring that foods that contain GMOs are labeled as such. However, the law left a lot of loopholes. Most foods only have to be labeled “GMO” in their raw state. Processed foods that contain a “non-GMO” label may still contain oils and sugars, which are exempt from the GMO labeling law. That box of “non-GMO” cookies you just picked up could possibly (and probably does) contain GMO ingredients. That being said, you should also know that most fresh foods, like fruits and vegetables, are not genetically modified anyway, so labeling them “non-GMO” is purely a marketing tactic. You’d be better off purchasing produce with a certified organic label instead.

Nutrition Facts

Now for the back side of the box: nutrition facts. Nutrition facts are meant to help consumers better understand the ingredients in food, but they can end up being more confusing than clarifying. Often, nutrition labels contain chemical ingredients with names that sound more like something Willy Wonka would have made in his factory. Not all of these hard-to-pronounce additives are necessarily bad. Unless you’re a Little House on the Prairie enthusiast, you probably don’t own a farm, a mill to grind wheat into flour, or a smokehouse to store fresh meats. That means that most of the time, your foods will need some sort of additives for them to stay fresh long enough to hit your table. Below are some of the most common food additives found on nutrition labels.

Food Dyes

You probably know that food dyes are found in everything from ice cream to hot dogs. However, food dyes can be found in fresh produce as well. Oranges are often dyed to give them a brighter citrus color before hitting store shelves. Food dyes are already regulated by the FDA, but recent evidence suggests that certain dyes may have a negative impact on a child’s behavior that the FDA doesn’t list on labels. Food dyes rarely have complicated names. You may see them listed on nutrition labels as Red No. 40 or Yellow No. 5. If you’d prefer to skip the synthetic dyes, you can look for alternatives on nutrition labels. Some of these safe, natural alternatives to synthetic food dyes include beta carotene, the stuff that causes carrots to be orange; chlorophyll, the pigment in plants that turn them green; anthocyanin, a flavonoid found in berries; and carminic acid, which is actually a red acid produced by cochineal insects.

Butylated Hydroxyanisole

This hard-to-pronounce antioxidant commonly known as BHA is most often used as a preservative in butter, cereal, beers, and baked goods. However, it can also be found in petroleum and rubber. Yikes! The FDA has found BHA to be a safe food additive, but some research shows that BHA is also a known carcinogen and has been shown to cause cancer in animals. However, the animals tested all developed illness in the forestomach, an organ humans don’t have. In addition, the BHA levels found in food are incredibly low compared to the BHA levels used in the studies. What’s more, the antioxidant properties of BHA, when combined with fats found in oils, butter, and other foods, may actually neutralize the carcinogenic risk.

Sodium Nitrate

You may not have even realized you were eating sodium nitrates/nitrites until the World Health Organization released a sweeping report about the negative side effects of eating processed meats. Nitrates are commonly found in hot dogs, bacon, and cold cuts like pepperoni. Sodium nitrate is a salt-based preservative that keeps harmful bacteria from growing in meat products. However, nitrates have been linked to higher cancer risks, which is why most processed meats also contain an antioxidant, which can neutralize, but not eliminate, the risk. There is probably little risk in indulging in the occasional hot dog at the ballpark, but most scientists agree that consumers should limit the amount of sodium nitrates they eat.

Propylene Glycol Alginate

Otherwise known as E405, propylene glycol alginate is an emulsifier and thickening agent commonly found in salad dressing, jelly, and ice cream. E405 is also used to make antifreeze, polyester, and synthetic items. Despite its non-food uses, the FDA considers E405 a safe additive in food. However, it has been shown to cause rash and other skin irritations when applied topically. If you’re a fan of making your own beauty products, check food labels for E405 before mixing up that face mask.

Shop Smarter

Despite hard-to-read nutrition labels, sometimes the worst ingredients are hiding in plain sight. Large quantities of sugar and salt continue to be the biggest health concern when it comes to food. One of the easiest ways to make sure you make healthy choices at the grocery store is to download a nutrition app. An app like ShopWell can help you read a nutrition label correctly and decipher ingredients quickly.

Katie Martin
Katie Raye Martin is a freelance writer, navy wife, new mom, and chocoholic. In addition to HealthyWay, she has contributed to NextGenMilSpouse, a blog for the millennial military spouse, and Pregnant Chicken, a pregnancy blog. Since welcoming her first son a few months ago, Katie has become a pregnancy expert and cloth diapering connoisseur. When she’s not writing (or changing diapers) Katie is training for her first half-marathon.