Back in the day, you might've grabbed a box of cereal, a jar of pasta sauce, or a bag of tortilla chips off the supermarket shelf and not given two thoughts about what was actually inside – other than that the grub tasted good and filled you up. But now that you're aware of how much garbage goes into many packaged foods, and ingredients and calorie and fat tallies are listed right on labels, you probably put more thought into what you toss in your shopping basket. You definitely do if you have specific food allergies or intolerances, or you just generally care where you food comes from.
To help you find products that meet your nutritional needs or ethics, a whole bevy of seals and certifications have exploded onto the scene. The intent is that you can glance at a food label, spot a stamp like USDA Organic or Certified Gluten-Free, and know instantly whether that product fits your criteria without having to pore over ingredients lists. Great idea, but these seals do you little good if you don't understand what they mean. And when a food label is plastered with three, four, five, or more stamps, it makes things cluttered and more confusing. We're here to help. Here's the lowdown on common seals gracing food packaging right now.
Whole grains are healthier than refined grains because they contain the whole shebang – bran, germ, and endosperm, and all the iron, fiber, and vitamins within them – while refined grains are just the endosperm, which has far fewer nutrients. Because refined grains have a finer texture and longer shelf life, many food manufacturers put them in products, and in many cases you can't tell by taste, feel, or appearance. For instance, white breads and pastas can be dyed darker to look like they're made with whole wheat when they're actually not, and some truly whole-grain cereals have so many other ingredients that the grainy texture gets lost. To find foods that have at least eight grams of whole grains (or half a serving; the government recommends three servings per day), look for the Whole Grain stamp. This seal doesn't guarantee an item is a healthful choice necessarily, but it's a quick way to tell whether you're getting all the health benefits of whole grains.