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How to Read Food Labels with a Green Eye

Buying food can be confusing, particularly if you’re trying to make healthy and sustainable choices. Reading food labels is important because they’re often the only source of information about the content of the food you buy. Food labels aren’t perfect, but they do provide basic information about where the food comes from, what it contains, and what nutritional value it offers.

To determine whether a food product arrived on the shelf from a sustainable production process, check out the following information on the label:

  • Ingredients list: Understanding the ingredients and their nutrients gives you an excellent feel for the quality of your food. Heavily processed food is likely to have added salt to assist in preservation and taste and several chemicals for flavoring and coloring. Naturally prepared foods are usually low in added salt, sugar, and saturated fats.

  • Animals used: Some animals and fish are protected species due to their near extinction from being over-farmed or culled or from habitat destruction. From a food point of view, you’re most likely to run into threatened species of fish; you can find the latest news plus handy pocket shopping guides from Seafood Watch. The site tells you the best choices for seafood, good alternatives if you can’t find the best choices, and species to avoid.

  • Country of origin: Somewhere on the label should be a note that says “Product of (a country).” Technically, this tells you the country the food comes from, but the reality is that this information sometimes can be misleading. It may indicate, for example, where the product was processed and packaged rather than where the product actually came from or where it traveled to during the processing. The nuances aren’t apparent from the packaging, so you may have to check the manufacturer’s Web site to find out where it processes its products.

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