Imagine you’re going down a grocery store aisle, and on the shelf there’s all the various brands of granola bars that you can choose. Some of them are labeled organic, others natural, and yet another healthy.
Which one do you choose? What do those words even mean, if anything?
We see words like healthy, natural, organic, fair trade, GMO-free, etc., all the time when we go grocery shopping. These labels affect our perception of the food and can heavily influence what we decide to buy. But more often than not, consumers are unsure of what these labels mean. Long story short, some labels are regulated and have a specific meaning, while others aren't regulated at all and are only marketing strategies.
So, which terms actually mean something? Here's a run-down of some common labels that are defined and verified.
1. Organic – Regulated Organic is a term that's regulated by the USDA's National Organic Program. Any foods that are officially recognized and certified by the USDA will have a USDA organic seal. While there are several caveats and technicalities to the definition, in laymen terms organic means that the food contains no
synthetic additives like pesticides or chemical fertilizers, and no genetically-modified organisms. There are different levels of organic. Foods that say 100 percent organic contains only ingredients that are certified organic. Organic means that 95 percent or above of ingredients (by weight) are organic. And the threshold for made with organic ingredients is at least 70 percent organic ingredients.
2. Fair Trade - Certified, but not federally regulated As a concept, fair trade refers to practices that help producers in less developed countries have fair trading partnerships. This term is also linked to ethical treatment of workers, environmental stewardship, and community capacity building. When you see a fair trade label, it may be Fair Trade USA Certified, or Fairtrade International (FLO) Certified. Both organizations have similar ideals regarding labor, terms of trade, providing fair trade premiums for enhancing community development, and environmental stewardship.
While it is beyond the scope of this blog to describe in detail the multiple criteria for fair trade certification, rest assured that fair trade labels imply that the food (or ingredients or other products) was made in compliance with several stringent conditions regarding labor, trade, the environment, and social issues. You can read more about the missions of Fair Trade USA and Fairtrade International here.
3. Gluten-Free – Regulated The FDA regulates gluten-freefor safety purposes for people with Celiac disease. Although gluten-free diets are popular these days, people with Celiac disease cannot eat gluten, which is the general name for proteins that are found in grains like wheat, rye, barley, and spelt. The use of the label is voluntary – even if a food is gluten-free by FDA definitions, it doesn't have to be labeled as such. After all, labeling everything that doesn't contain gluten would be a bit ridiculous. Raw almonds or canned green beans obviously do not contain gluten. But largely due to lack of consumer knowledge about gluten, companies can include this label in order to make their product more marketable.
4. GMO-Free - Meaningful, but not federally regulated Genetically modified organisms, or GMOs, are organisms that are genetically modified, usually through the use of modern biotechnologies. These organisms refer to the plants from which the food is derived from – not the food itself. One common organization that verifies Non-GMO products is the Non-GMO Project, which is not a governmental agency, but rather an independent non-profit. For a food product to get this label, all of its inputs including seeds and animal manure fertilizers must meet the project's standards, one being that the product must contain less than one percent (by weight) of ingredients derived from GMOs. However, GMO-Free (or similar phrases like not bioengineered or not genetically modified through the use of modern biotechnology, etc.), is not federally regulated. While the FDA does have guidance for industries regarding this issue, any claims made by manufacturers are not verified or enforced by the government. So, while GMO-Free does convey a specific meaning, it's difficult to know what standards companies follow since there is no uniform agency that overlooks the usage of the label.
5. High in ____ – Regulated For a company to claim that its product is high in ____ or an excellent source of___, it must meet 20 percent or more of the daily recommended value of that nutrient for each serving. Other closely related phrases are a good source of___ and contains___. Foods with these labels only have to meet 10 to 19 percent, rather than 20 percent of the daily recommended value. There are also several other related terms that the FDA defines.
6. Healthy – Regulated The FDA considers healthy to be a nutrient content claim. For a manufacturer to label their food as healthy it must have low levels of total fat, saturated fat, cholesterol and sodium. Additionally, it must provide at least 10 percent of the Daily Value per serving of one or more of vitamin A, vitamin C, calcium, iron, protein, or fiber (however the number of required nutrients depends on the food type).
While products with these above terms must meet certain terms and conditions, there are countless other food labels whose meanings are unclear or virtually nonexistent. (Our next blog will address some of the common labels that aren’t regulated and don’t mean anything really.) Educating yourself and reading informational articles can help combat the lack of clarity about a food's health claims, but it's always a good idea to look at the Nutrition Facts label to see what the food actually contains.
This blog is the first blog in a series about understanding food labels. Future topics will be on the politics of food labeling, nutrition marketing, and reading 'Nutrition Facts ' labels among other things!