How To Read Food Labels As An Ethical Shopper

By Adriane Marie •  Updated: 07/09/22 •  9 min read
Ethical shoppers care about health, environment, animals and laborers.

How to read food labels as an ethical shopper?

Grocery shopping can be quite the task as an ethical consumer….

It’s not a scene from the TV game show sensation Supermarket Sweep. You don’t run down aisles throwing cereal boxes into the cart and make it to the check-out finish line in under a minute. 

Inspection is required! You pick up products one by one to examine each carefully. You scan for red flags or give a green-light to labels that speak to your needs. It’s time consuming.

See a USDA Organic circle on the tofu? You approve. A fair trade icon on the tea? Bingo. Uh, oh….No green “V”?

You read each ingredient carefully for a hidden animal-derived ingredient like fish stock or whey. You conclude it’s probably vegan but the brand didn’t state it outright. 

As a conscious buyer, you also know about ingredients dangerous for your health and the environment. Aspartame? I don’t think so. Palm oil? No way! 

There are many factors to consider when buying food. So here’s a quick rundown on:

How to read food labels. What to look for and avoid as an ethical shopper…

How to read food labels 101

Ingredients listed.

How to read food labels as an ethical shopper?
Reading food labels can be a chore!

Ingredients are always listed in order from greatest to least amounts. For instance, if a jar of tomato sauce says something like tomatoes, water, citric acid, basil, oregano, salt we can conclude that it is mostly tomatoes with not so much salt. However, if the label reads sugar, tomatoes, citric acid, basil, oregano, salt, we can conclude that it comprised of more sugar than tomatoes!  

Less is more.

Typically, the rule of some is the less ingredients, the better. In many cases, you want your food to be pure and simple. If there’s a long list of ingredients it’s likely a highly processed concoction. Reading food labels and ingredients should be an easy task. If not, pass it up.

Say what?

It’s best if you recognize the ingredients on the label. If they are nearly impossible to pronounce or you’ve never heard of them they may be artificial, unnatural, possibly toxic, etc. After all, you want to know exactly what you’re putting in your body, don’t you?

Symbols that speak to us: 

Vegan 

Includes vegan certifying organizations like Vegan Society and Vegan Action. Or the brand may simply stamp VEGAN on the label themselves.

If you suspect the product isn’t vegan here’s a way to know faster:

Scan down to the bolded food allergens at the bottom of the label’s ingredients list. Here you’ll find milk or egg listed if they’re part of the product.

Why? Milk and eggs are part of the big 8 most common food allergens.

Unfortunately, other non-allergenic animal products like meat, lard or honey won’t be here. You might have to go through each ingredient one by one.

Fair Trade

Includes Certified B Corp, Fairtrade International and World Fair Trade Organization. Look for it on products that frequently involve worker exploitation like tea, bananas, chocolate and cashews.

Organic

Includes USDA Organic and EU Organic Regulation.

Here’s a list of the dirty dozen foods you should always buy organic no matter what!

Non-GMO

Includes Non-GMO Project, organic is always best and automatically implies it is non-GMO but if it’s not organic non-GMO is better than nothing!

Made in USA (or your home-country)

It’s best to support local for economical and environmental purposes.

Gluten-free

If that’s your thing. Includes Gluten-Free Certification Organization or simply including “gluten-free” somewhere on the label. This can often be purely promotional because a lot of foods are naturally gluten-free.

Here’s a gluten and gluten free foods list to help!

Local ingredients

Fresh is best! Buy locally and seasonally whenever possible.

A good sustainable option, especially considering a lot of USA food comes from Mexico or travels cross-country from California. Local means it was picked when ripe and for this reason will have optimal nutritional value. Say no to those out-of-season white strawberries that turn pink on their voyage north!

Nutrition Facts

High protein and high fiber are things to love! High saturated fat, trans fat, cholesterol and added sugars are things to pass up!

Carbon Neutral

You’ll start to see this phrase popping up on all sorts of products -not just food. The brand is worth supporting for their efforts to be more sustainable. Carbon neutral means they’re finding ways to balance their emissions with things like solar panels, electric delivery trucks, sustainable packaging and more.

Allergen-free

If you have kids you know all about food allergens. Schools are very particular nowadays with what foods your child can and cannot bring for lunch, snack time or to share with classmates. Products that state they are “allergen-free” cover the big 8 most common food allergens.

Price

Who doesn’t love a discount? When food items are on sale it’s usually because they’ll soon expire or their “best by” dates are just around the corner. Buying these “last chance” items helps reduce food waste and gives us budgeters a feeling of satisfaction.

Symbols that greenwash:

V’s that stand for Vegetarian and NOT Vegan

You may see a V (Vegetarian) on cheese nowadays and think “well of course cheese is not meat”. But this is to indicate that rennet, or cow stomach lining, was not used in cheese production. That’s right! Lots of cheeses are not even vegetarian.

Responsible palm oil

Just avoid palm oil all together. ‘Responsible’ palm oil is controversial and organizations have been outed for having standards that aren’t strict enough.

Sugar-free

OK, is it replaced with a sugar substitute? And if so which one? Studies continue to prove many sugar substitutes are quite dangerous!

Fat-free

Seems too good to be true? It probably is. If that ranch dressing is fat-free it’s got some artificial substitutes to keep the flavor but take away the calories. Theses types of fat replacements can also be pretty unhealthy.

Free-range or cage-free

food labels may read well but some claims are misleading
Animal foods; problematic and deceptive. Best to avoid.

Might only be a few square feet of freedom! Not a pasture of vast, rolling hills we’re encouraged to imagine. Animal foods are problematic and deceptive. Best to avoid all together.

Hormone-free

Even if there are no additional growth hormones given to animals, eat animals and you always eat their testosterone or estrogen and other bodily hormones too! 

Grass-fed

Typically for beef, it doesn’t matter if the cow is grass fed or not, you’re still killing an animal and the cow is still environmentally destructive.

Ingredients to avoid:

Animal-derived ingredients Why? You don’t want animals involved in the creation of your food because we just don’t know what goes on behind the scenes. Best to err on the side of caution and go fully vegan.

Sugar Why? Added sugar can be too much. For naturally sweet things like fruit juice there should never be MORE sugar included. Also, it’s not even technically vegan at times, as bone char can be used sometimes to refine and process the sugar.

High fructose corn syrup Why? Terrible for your health!

Palm oil Why? Rainforest destruction and wildlife endangerment. 

Aspartame Why? Terrible for your health!

Packaging we like:

None at all! – Fruits and veggies in the produce section don’t need any packaging at all. Be sure to wash them thoroughly when you get home. Or bring your own produce bags to contain broccoli, lettuce, apples and more. Avoid using those clear produce plastic bags that are so wasteful and nearly impossible to re-use.

Glass – Recyclable and biodegradable.

Cardboard – Recyclable and biodegradable.

…And anything else recyclable! To see what recyclable and non-recyclable materials check out this list.

Packaging to avoid: 

Single use plastics, a very unsustainable material
Single use plastics: the bane of your existence.

Single use plastics

Non-recyclable, flimsy plastic that does a great job at preserving and protecting food but contributes to landfills and plastic demand. Plastic bags were a rare novelty in the 1970s so it’s hard to imagine what grocery stores and food packaging looked like before that time!

Cans aren’t always bad (they are recyclable after all) BUT can be lined with BPA

Canned food is quick, easy and has a long shelf-life. However, you’ll want to cut back on canned goods or choose products where the can label states “BPA free”. BPA can be dangerous for you health. According to Coca Cola, “Virtually all metal cans used for food and beverage products are lined on the inside with a coating that uses BPA as a starting material.” Yikes!

Netting

Bunches of apples, lemons etc. that are bundled in netted plastic – choose individual, package-free produce whenever possible

Styrofoam…So, so unsustainable!

Other tips for ethical consumers:

ethical consumers need to know how to read food labels

It’s important to also teach your kids how to read food labels! They are future ethical consumers in the making.

Now you know how to read food labels as an ethical shopper!

Adriane Marie

Self-proclaimed Grocery Guru, Material Maven and all around Conscious Consumer Connoisseur. I organize ethical info for us to comprehensively see how purchases impact people, animals and the planet. I hope you find HEALabel helpful and use it for personal and global improvement and empowerment.