5 Ways to Choose Your Food

By Stefanie Sacks, MS, CNS, CDN

Confusion about what to eat is a very real thing. But, if you read Food Labeling and Hogwash you may feel empowered to make some smarter choices in the grocery aisles. Facilitating your nourishment journey is our goal, so here are five simple ways to actively engage in reshaping your eats. By following these guidelines, you can apply small everyday changes that lead to long-term benefits to your health.

1. Follow The 70-80% Rule Choose 70-80% whole foods. When you head to the grocery store, opt into produce (fresh and frozen); whole grains (rice, quinoa, oats); beans (dried or canned); nuts and seeds (butters too); plant and animal protein (tofu, tempeh, eggs, fish, poultry, meat); dairy and non-dairy alternatives; and condiments including herbs and spices, vegetable oils, and vinegars.

2. Limit or Avoid Ultra-Processed Foods Ultra-processed foods—those that have many added ingredients such as sugar, salt, fat, artificial colors and flavors, and chemical preservatives are everywhere. Examples include frozen meals, soft drinks, hot dogs and cold cuts, fast food, packaged cookies, cakes, and salty snacks. If processed food is a must, know that you can find healthier options without such “harmful” ingredients.

Pay attention to ingredient lists as they will tell the story of your food: As a general rule, if you don’t know what an ingredient is then likely it’s a chemical color, flavor, or preservative.

Despite mass confusion, the food marketplace is far better than it was just a decade ago. Healthier options are more accessible and affordable for all; many special dietary needs are being met; and there is now a better-for-you alternative for most everything from colored cereals and Pop-Tarts to pickles and luncheon meats. If you can’t give up the ultra-processed picks, then at least opt for ones without artificial colors and flavors, and chemical preservatives. Pay attention to ingredient lists as they will tell the story: As a general rule, if you don’t know what an ingredient is then it’s likely a chemical color, flavor, or preservative.

3. Be Open to Organic The United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) implemented the National Organic Program (NOP) in October 2002. According to the Organic Trade Association, “Unlike other eco-labels, the organic label is backed by a set of rigorous federal production and processing standards. These standards require that products bearing the USDA organic label be grown and processed without the use of toxic and synthetic pesticides and fertilizers, genetic engineering, antibiotics, synthetic growth hormones, artificial flavors, colors, preservatives, sewage sludge and irradiation.”

However, even with the USDA NOP in place, organic food fraud has reached epic proportions. Have you heard of Randy Constant? He was a Missouri farmer who, between 2010 and 2017, fraudulently sold millions of dollars’ worth of non-organic grain as though it was organic and impacted every aspect of the organic food chain—and this was just one case. As a result, the USDA is tightening regulations and boosting oversight. And that makes USDA Organic still worth opting into if it fits your budget.

You can also cost effectively navigate organics using this additional guidance:

  • For produce, use Environmental Working Group’s Dirty Dozen and Clean Fifteen, a shopper’s guide to pesticides in produce; their top picks will help you avoid harmful pesticide residue in your food.

  • For grains such as corn, oats, and wheat, choose organic when possible. Conventional farmers liberally use Glyphosate (Roundup), a pesticide that has been linked to an increased risk for Non-Hodgkin's Lymphoma, a type of cancer. Even so, the U.S. government, as well as the European Union still deem Glyphosate as “safe for human consumption.”

  • For beans, go for organic chickpeas as they are heavily doused with Glyphosate; other beans fare better.

  • For animal foods (including dairy), USDA Organic can be a good choice and is widely available. USDA Organic with a higher- welfare certification, such as Animal Welfare Approved by A Greener World or Certified Humane is next level.

4. Banish These Buzzwords* The simple rule here is that terms like: cage-free, free-roaming, grassfed, no antibiotics, no hormones, no animal by-products, naturally raised, no rBGH, pasture raised, sustainable and vegetarian-fed have zero meaning without certain qualifiers and third-party certifications. Terms like heritage, locally grown, and natural really mean nothing.

5. Tune Into These Terms* Focus on these terms you can trust as these certifications/seals come with third-party verification:

  • Biodynamic: Independent third-party verification through Demeter

  • Certified Animal Welfare Approved: Independent third-party verification through A Greener World

  • Certified Grassfed: Independent third-party verification through A Greener World, American Grassfed Association, or Food Alliance

  • Certified Humane: Independent third-party verification through Humane Farm Animal Care

  • Certified Naturally Grown (CNG): A grassroots alternative to USDA Organic relying on the Participatory Guarantee System for verification

  • Fair Trade: Independent third-party verification through Fair Trade International, Institute for Market Ecology, Ecosocial, and Fair Trade USA

  • Food Alliance: Modified organic standards with independent third-party verification through Food Alliance

  • Non-GMO: Independent third-party verification through A Greener World or the Non-GMO Project

  • Rainforest Alliance Certified: Independent third-party verification through Rainforest Alliance

  • Regenerative: Independent third-party verification through A Greener World or Regenerative Organic Alliance

  • USDA Organic: Independent third-party verification through USDA National Organic Program

  • Whole Grain: Independent third-party verification through Whole Grains Council

Reshaping food choices, let alone behaviors around choices, does not happen overnight. It is a process, but one that begins with information from credible sources.

*If you are looking for an in-depth picture of all label lingo, check out Chapter 11 in What The Fork Are You Eating.

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