From Cage Free to Grass Fed to Organic, What You Need to Know About Food Labels
Here's how to make sense of these and other terms found on food.
It seems like every time you go to buy a bunch of bananas, a bottle of wine, or even a carton of eggs, there's a new sticker practically shouting at you: "Fair Trade Certified," "USDA Organic," "Made with Biodynamic Grapes." Not only are all these labels confusing, they're also overwhelming. This is especially true when all you want is to pick up ingredients to make a week's worth of meals that are good for you, the farmers, and the environment while getting in and out of the store quickly.
The best way to combat label-related anxiety? Get informed. Here, we explain what some of the more common food labels actually mean—now you can decide which ones to look for on your next food shopping adventure.
Animal Welfare Approved
Several labels attempt to tell consumers how farms treat animals, but one of the more popular ones is Certified Animal Welfare Approved by AGW. You'll see this one appear on meat, dairy, and eggs. Overseen by A Greener World (AGW), the label means animals have continuous access to outdoors. It also prohibits feedlots, cage confinement, hormones, and preventative or growth-promoting antibiotics.
Biodynamic farming dates back to the 1920s, but it's only recently that more and more produce and even wine has popped up with biodynamic labels. If you think of organic farming as doing no harm, biodynamic is about healing the earth. As with organic, produce is grown without pesticides and other chemicals, but where a lot of farming practices (sometimes including organic) can degrade the soil, biodynamic farming focuses on healthy soil. Demeter International or Demeter USA certifies farms using biodynamic methods.
It's not just meat products you'll spot with a grass-fed label these days. There's also cheese and milk, chocolate, and more. Many grass-fed labels are simply a marketing label with no certification involved. Still, AGW, American Grassfed Association and the USDA do have grass-fed labels for meat products that require farms to feed animals a certain percentage of grass.
This is a label you'll see on meat, chicken, pork, eggs, dairy products, and even pet food. Certification is overseen by the Humane Farm Animal Care, which audits farms to ensure they meet standards for animal care and slaughter. While standards include access to nutritious food, skilled, knowledgeable, and conscientious animal care and more, critics say they are not much better than conventional farming. For instance, Humane Farm Animal Care does not require outdoor access for all animals, nor does it prohibit feedlots.
Chances are you've seen the words "cage-free" on eggs, but what you may not realize is that cage-free doesn't mean the eggs come from hens that live outdoors. According to the USDA Agricultural Marketing Service, cage-free eggs come from hens "that are allowed to roam in a room or open area, which is typically a barn or poultry house."
The majority of labels describe ingredients, but Fair Trade labels (there are a few certification agencies) describe how the product was created and by whom. The two leading auditors are Fair Trade International and Fair Trade USA. Products with these seals have been audited by a third-party to ensure they meet certain standards. These include supporting and improving the quality of life of the workers creating the products and achieving environmental standards. These products tend to cost a little more as they include a Fair Trade premium, which goes directly to workers to use to complete community products such as building a school, hospital, or even housing programs.
Whole Trade Guarantee
If you're a frequent Whole Foods customer, you've likely seen the Whole Trade Guarantee (WTG) on products such as coffee, bananas, and roses. Created in 2007, products with this label were produced ethically for trade, workers, and the environment. Producers are certified by Fair Trade USA, Fair Trade International, or the Rainforest Alliance.
Be careful with "natural." There's no regulatory definition for the term making this rather meaningless.
Regulated by the USDA's National Organic Program since 2002, many consumers are familiar with the USDA Organic label. It requires food labeled USDA Organic be free of chemicals, most pesticides, sewage, sludge, and Genetically Modified Organisms (GMOs). It does allow for the use of some naturally based pesticides and a few synthetic ones that meet a set of regulations. You'll also see products labeled "Made with Organic Ingredients," which means the food contains at least 70 percent certified organic ingredients. Food made with less than 70 percent organic ingredients may list organic ingredients on the packaging label.
Non-GMO Project Verified
Next to organic, the Non-GMO Project verified seals is one of the most popular labels to see on food. Companies using the label on their product work with a third-party administrator to check their product contains less than 0.9 percent genetically modified (or engineered) organisms, (GMOs). Both organic and conventional products are eligible to be verified.
Regenerative agriculture has been one of the big buzz words of the past few years and a handful of organizations are working to create standards and labels around the term. Look for the Regenerative Organic Alliance seal designed by Rodale Institute, Patagonia, and Dr. Bronner's. To be certified, products have to be organic and produced in a way that benefits farmers and promotes long-term soil health. You'll also see products marketed as produced using regenerative agriculture. In general regenerative agriculture is farming done in a way that helps build soil health, increases organic matter, effectively storing water and drawing carbon out of the atmosphere.
Food Justice Certification Label
This label from the Agricultural Justice Project is one of the rarer ones you'll see. Only a handful of farms are certified to use the label, which requires that in addition to being USDA Organic certified, products are produced while treating workers all along the food chain fairly. This includes requirements that address worker's rights, fair wages and benefits, workplace health and safety and even fair pricing for farmers.
How to Use These Labels to Help You Shop
All of these labels have pros and cons, and given the fact the number of labels on our food products will only increase, a good place to start is by looking for the labels that meet your values when shopping. When in doubt, ask the farmer at your farmers' market how the products they're selling are grown and by whom. Many of these labels require producers pay a fee for certification, so some farmers follow specific standards without getting certification. Also ask at the grocery store for recommendations for different brands of eggs, other foods, and even wine based on your preferences.