What’s hype and what’s healthy? Here’s what you need to know about 8 food labels commonly seen on grocery store products
Despite appearances, there’s precious little regulation for most food labels. And given that lack of standardization, confusion reigns. For example, in a recent survey conducted by the Organic and Natural Health Association (ONHA), fully one-third of respondents believe there’s no difference between the labels organic and natural, and 46 percent believe natural is defined and regulated by the government (surprise: it’s not). And 33 percent of consumers report using “natural” products at least once a day. “People relying on a ‘natural’ label are being duped,” says Karen Howard, OHNA’s CEO. “They are not purchasing the quality goods they think they are.”
Which labels mean something and which are merely marketing lingo? Here's your guide to the good, the bad, and the wishy-washy.
•USDA Organic. [thumbs up] This designation remains the gold standard for reliability. Defined and regulated by the USDA’s National Organic Program since 2000, it indicates foods made without genetically modified organisms (GMOs), most pesticides and herbicides, sewage sludge, antibiotics, growth hormones, and irradiation. To earn certification, a producer must maintain cropland free of prohibited substances for at least three years, and products must contain at least 95 percent organic ingredients. For meat, poultry, dairy, and eggs, animals must be fed 100 percent organic feed, never given growth hormones or antibiotics, and not be cloned or exclusively confined. USDA-approved certifiers annually inspect farms and facilities for compliance.
•Natural or All-Natural. [thumbs down or horizontal] At the moment, technically and legally, natural means nearly nothing. The FDA allows the label unless the product contains “added color, synthetic substances, and flavors”—a maddeningly vague list. “All-natural” products can and do contain GMOs, pesticides, and hormones. In the past few years, lawyers stepped into the morass with class-action litigation designed to hold “natural” brands’ feet to the fire. But, says Howard, “leaving this issue to be resolved through lawsuits only fails consumers, the companies committed to providing quality foods, and public health care concerns.”
In 2014, the newly formed OHNA announced plans to define natural and provide a certification program. OHNA hopes to launch its definition and a consumer education campaign in January 2016. The newest twist: In November 2015, the FDA suddenly announced a public comment period “in direct response to consumers who have requested that the FDA explore the use of the term ‘natural.’” To add your voice, go to www.regulations.com and type FDA-2014-N-1207 into the search box.
•Certified Biodynamic. [thumbs up] Biodynamic farming adheres to all USDA Organic standards. But this century-old system raises the bar by viewing agriculture as an earth-saving, holistic operation in which all elements—people, crops, soil, animals, and more—function as an interconnected, self-sustaining entity. To earn the seal, “the whole farm, versus just a portion, must be certified organic; 10 percent of the total acreage must be set aside in biodiversity, such as oak groves, water ways, and insectaries; and solutions to pest control, weed control, and fertility come from the living dynamics of the farm system itself, instead of importing materials from off the farm, organic or synthetic,” explains Elizabeth Candelario, co-director of certifying agency Demeter USA.
•Non-GMO. [thumbs up] The Non-GMO Project Verified label, now on more than 35,000 products, is one of the fastest growing food certifications. Administered by the Non-GMO Project, a nonprofit group with stringent standards and procedures, it prohibits living organisms created by genetic manipulation that would never occur in nature or through traditional crossbreeding—and designed to withstand (or create their own!) herbicides and pesticides. (The term “GMO-free” isn’t reliable because it’s not independently verified, but the USDA Organic seal automatically ensures non-GMO. )
•Free Range and Cage Free. [thumbs down] When you see these terms on egg cartons you probably picture grassy fields with a happy chicken (named Colin) pecking the dirt. Not even close. According to the USDA, free range indicates merely that chickens are allowed outside access—but doesn’t clarify the size of the outdoor or individual space (how does 1 square foot sound?), the time birds spend there, or how they are handled. Cage free only means Colin wasn’t raised in a cage—but he may have spent his entire life inside some other industrial structure, standing in his own poop.
•Certified Humane and Pasture Raised. [thumbs up] For the Certified Humane label, regular on-site inspectors verify that meat, poultry, eggs, or dairy come from facilities that never use cages or crates, raise animals with legitimate space and shelter, use hormone-free feed, administer no antibiotics, and practice humane handling and slaughter techniques. Though currently unregulated, pasture raised, championed by conscientious producers, indicates that an animal spent its life outside with access to shelter—a traditional and humane method.
•Fair Trade. [thumbs up] This label indicates that workers in farming cooperatives are paid a guaranteed (that is, not subject to market fluctuations), living-wage price for goods; work in safe conditions; receive community-development funds; and are trained in sustainable agriculture techniques. TransFair USA is the largest third-party certifier and recognizes standards from global consortium Fairtrade Labeling Organizations International. Some socially and environmentally conscious producers take fair trade to the next level with direct trade, a noncertified but deeply value-driven relationship between a single company and its farmer-partners.
•Hormone Free or No Artificial Hormones. [thumbs horizontal] After a huge consumer backlash against recombinant bovine growth hormone (rBGH or rBST)—injected into cows to increase milk output but linked to animal and human health risks —most producers dropped it. Still, the U.S. remains the only developed country to permit its use and sale. No hormone-free certification exists, but this term supposedly means that animals were never injected with hormones to speed growth or milk production. Per USDA rules, no hormones are ever used on chickens, turkeys, and pigs—so a hormone-free label on those foods is just marketing. All certified organic, pasture-raised, and certified-humane products are guaranteed hormone free.
So don’t just read labels—make sure you’ve done your research and really understand what those words and phrases on them mean when it comes to your family’s health, animal welfare and the health of our environment.
By: ELISA BOSLEY