03/07/2013 11:46 am ET Updated May 07, 2013

6 Restaurant Certifications to Help You to Healthier Eating

We've asked Clean Plates founder Jared Koch to help sort out the different restaurant health certifications out there, and he's written back with six of the best that his email and restaurant guide uses.

At Clean Plates, the email newsletter and restaurant review guide whose mission is to take the grunt work out of eating healthier, we have a fairly intensive process of vetting restaurants before deciding whether they've earned a spot in our guides or a coveted Clean Plates Seal of Approval. Restaurants are vetted for nutritious, organic, local and sustainable ingredients, as well as taste, with options for all types of eaters from carnivores to vegans.

As part of the process, we incorporate data from several certification bodies to inform our ratings system; each one brings something to the table that we're looking for. Here are the certifications, and what each one actually certifies:

1. Slow Food Snail of Approval

A Slow Food Snail denotes local and sustainable ingredients, but doesn't account for overall nutrition. So with this certification alone, you could find chicken that's free-range and local but still deep-fried.

2. Certified Green Restaurants

Certified Green restaurants must have a full-scale recycling program, be Styrofoam-free and tally up points for things like consuming less energy and being water-efficient. Though points are also given for sustainable food, the emphasis is primarily on environmental impact unrelated to actual food sourcing.

3. Animal Welfare Approved

Animal Welfare Approved (AWA) thoroughly ensures that the dairy, meat and/or eggs at a restaurant came from animals that lived happy lives; they must be pastured, free-range and raised on family farms. However, one major part of the meal -- produce -- is not approved under this certification.

4. SPE

SPE, or Sanitas Per Escam, Latin for "health through food," is focused on the nutritional content and sourcing of ingredients. SPE consultants revamp chefs' dishes to become healthier and lower-calorie without losing flavor. Unfortunately, there are very few SPE Certified restaurants (only three in New York City, for instance). This system also advocates minimizing butter and cream, so some well-known chefs who cook with these ingredients have been resistant to spring for this particular certification.

5. Gluten-Free Food Service

The Gluten-Free check mark means that the restaurant's management has worked with a consultant to safely produce gluten-free food. That means no contamination can occur. While this is assuring for people with Celiac disease, with only this certification, a gluten-free pizza could still have hormone-laden meat on top.

6. Heart-Check Meal Certification

The American Heart Association heads up this effort, which gives a seal to individual dishes with fewer than 700 calories and reduced saturated fats, trans fats, sodium and cholesterol. Still, neither food sourcing nor quality are measured. Subway restaurants were the first to serve these "heart-healthy meals."

Try out these healthy meals for dinner tonight from Food Republic:

Grilled Avocado With Quinoa Salad Recipe
Grilled Salmon In Corn Husks Recipe
Beet Tartare Recipe

Related: 28 Mediterranean Recipes To Help You Make It Through The Winter

Related: Our Favorite Vegan Lunches Of All Time

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