Integrate Your Health: Navigating Food Labels

In Dr. Nicole Cotter, Health and Beauty, Lola Shreveport by Lola Magazine

To eat organic or to not eat organic…that is the question. In my opinion, the answer is to eat organic, but allow me to explain.

There are many buzz words used by the food industry to sell product. Some of these labels are useful and some completely meaningless. It can be a challenge to navigate through this marketing maze, but understanding a few key terms will be well worth your time, benefit your health, and help you to spend your money where it matters most.

One of the terms most commonly touted by the health food industry is “organic,” but what does that mean? In short, organic is a labeling term that means pesticides were not used in the production of that food item. There is an ongoing argument about whether organic produce is nutritionally superior to nonorganic produce and in some ways, it does appear to be. However, the more important question in determining the importance of the “organic” label may not be “What does organic food have that nonorganic does not?” but rather “What does organic food NOT have that nonorganic does?” The answer: chemicals that could be detrimental to your health and the environment. The USDA’s definition of organic states that “synthetic fertilizers, sewage sludge, irradiation, and genetic engineering may not be used” in the production of organic food. Sign me up! Choosing organic products is a way to diminish our exposure to some of these potentially harmful chemicals. Certified Organic is a certification provided by the USDA, meaning that the farm has met the standards for organic practices. Keep in mind that, for many reasons, some excellent farms lack organic certification but follow organic standards.

With regards to nutrition, we do know that the minute produce is harvested, it starts to lose some of its nutritional value. Therefore, eating LOCAL is preferred. The farther food must travel to get to your kitchen, the greater the loss of nutritional value. If you are eating locally, you are also getting food that is in season. Seasonal foods are picked at the height of freshness and offer greater nutritional content than out-of-season foods. They are also usually less expensive. Ever wonder why strawberries taste better in the summer or their price doubles in the winter? Strawberries are out of season in winter, so the crop has traveled a far distance to arrive in our supermarkets. It is easier to eat on a budget (and afford the organic options) if you buy foods that are in season. You can find local and seasonal food at your Farmer’s Market, giving you the opportunity to meet and talk to your farmers. Ask them about their farming practices. Do they use pesticides? Do they follow organic practices? These questions can create meaningful discussion and allow you to make informed decisions about the food you feed your family.

The Environmental Working Group puts out a Shopper’s Guide to Pesticides in Produce each year. They provide a list of the “Dirty Dozen” (the twelve fruits and vegetables found to have the most pesticide residues) and the “Clean Fifteen” (the fifteen fruits and vegetables found to have few if any pesticide residues). If you can’t buy all your produce organic, reference this list and try to at least buy the Dirty Dozen organic and save your money with conventionally grown Clean Fifteen.

(Dr. Cotter’s health plug: Don’t fall into the trap of assuming that organic equals healthy. An organic hot dog is still a hot dog, right?)

Other areas of the food industry with an abundance of buzz words are the meat, dairy and egg industries. When you think of beef, you probably have an image of a cow grazing peacefully in a field of green grass. When you think of eggs, you may have an image of a hen laying an egg in an uncrowded space. The reality is that almost all the meat, eggs, and dairy products found in a supermarket come from animals raised in confinement feedlots. They are fed corn, soy, and other inexpensive products, while often being treated with hormones and antibiotics to manage diseases that occur as a result of the confinement and altered diet. Beef from cows that are fed their native diet (grass) and raised in a pasture has superior nutritional value to that of feedlot beef. The same is true for other animal protein and eggs. When purchasing meat or eggs, it is ideal to seek out local farms and avoid the traditional supermarket altogether. While the practices of “grass-fed” and “pasture-raised” are important, these claims are largely unverified on food labels. The best way to ensure you are getting a product that meets your standards is to know the farmer who raised the animal and see the farm for yourself. If you do shop at the supermarket, research your products, read your labels, and educate yourself on the meaning of those labels. Talk to your butcher. Talk to your farmer. We fortunately have several farms in our area that care for their animals and provide quality, trusted products.

The best way to start learning about the food you eat is to simply start paying attention. Think about how produce is grown or how animals are raised and you will naturally start to question the products available to you. Check out the Animal Welfare Institute’s “Consumer’s Guide to Food Labels and Animal Welfare” to educate yourself about food labels. Meet your local farmers. Visit a Farmer’s Market. With a little thought and constructive questioning, you can make wise choices about the food you eat and your health in general.

Dirty Dozen (EWG 2017)
1. Strawberries
2. Spinach
3. Nectarines
4. Apples
5. Peaches
6. Pears
7. Cherries
8. Grapes
9. Celery
10. Tomato
11. Sweet Bell Peppers
12. Potatoes

Clean Fifteen (EWG 2017)
1. Sweet Corn
2. Avocado
3. Pineapple
4. Cabbage
5. Onions
6. Sweet peas
7. Papaya
8. Asparagus
9. Mangos
10. Eggplant
11. Honeydew Melon
12. Kiwi
13. Cantaloupe
14. Cauliflower
15. Grapefruit


Dr. Nicole Cotter is a board-certified Integrative Medicine doctor in Shreveport, Louisiana. She graduated from LSU School of Medicine. She completed residency in Internal Medicine and fellowships in both Rheumatology and Integrative Medicine. She is the owner of Integrative Medicine of Shreveport-Bossier (www.integrativemedicinesb.com), a consultative practice where she partners with patients to create personalized health plans that integrate complementary medicine with conventional to care for the whole person.