The Truth Behind Food Labels

The Truth Behind Food Labels

It can be confusing trying to make sense of all the environmental claims plastered on food products lining grocery store aisles.

By Gretel H. Schueller/Photograph by Stephen Wilkes
Published: March-April 2011

Take a look at your local grocer's shelves and you'll see food with stickers and packages promoting an array of feel-good, environment-friendly assertions--from "cage free," "hormone free," and "all natural" to "organic," "fair trade," and even "biodynamic." There's a reason for all this green branding. Since 2003 U.S. organic food sales have more than doubled, to roughly $25 billion. The booming demand for organic foods is making greenwashing more tempting--and more lucrative--than ever before. One study found that about a third of all new food products launched in 2008 claimed to be "natural."

With all the different green food labels--there are about 100, depending on how you choose to define them--figuring out which ones are the most meaningful can be challenging. The mother of all eco-labels is, of course, "organic." Experts say this one showed the way in terms of defining methods of growing food that are gentler on the landscape. But even "organic" has its limitations. For one, organic certification addresses neither working conditions for farm workers nor impacts on wildlife habitat or water quality.

What this all means is these days, you really have to do your homework to know what you're buying, even if the packaging does have an eco-friendly seal. The following lists aim to peel back the labels.


In the Bag
Third-party certification is the best means for determining whether a label's claim really makes the grade. These designations are authentic, with a few caveats.  

USDA Organic 
Since 2002, when it first went into effect, the U.S. Department of Agriculture's organic seal has been considered the gold standard of organic food. To earn the label, foods must be produced without the use of synthetic pesticides, herbicides, fertilizers, sludge, irradiation, or genetically modified seeds, according to the agency. Cows must have access to pasture a minimum of 120 days per year. There are four tiers of "organic" defined by USDA guidelines. When 100 percent of the ingredients and methods are organic, the product can be classified "100% organic" and stamped with the USDA Organic seal. When 95 percent or more of the ingredients fit the bill, the item can be labeled "organic" and also display the seal. When at least 70 percent of a product's ingredients are organic, the package can state "Made with organic," but it cannot include the official seal. Products with less than 70 percent organic ingredients cannot carry the seal, although specific ingredients that are organically produced can be identified as such on the ingredients list.

Fair Trade 
This certification looks at economic, social, and environmental criteria: Farmers are paid living wages and have safe working conditions; child labor is prohibited. Fair trade premiums are invested in community development, such as training and organic certification. Most pesticides and all GMOs are banned in favor of environmentally sustainable farming methods that protect both habitat and farmers' health. In the United States, coffee, tea, herbs, cocoa, chocolate, fresh fruit, sugar, rice, and vanilla are available with this ethically minded label.

Rainforest Alliance 
The independent certification overseen by the Rainforest Alliance aims to reduce water pollution and soil erosion, protect human health, conserve wildlife habitat, improve livelihoods, and reduce waste. More than 84,500 farms totaling upwards of 1.8 million acres--in South America, Southeast Asia, and Africa--have been Rainforest Alliance certified. The chief products include coffee, cocoa, tea, nuts, and fruits.

Food Alliance 
This logo requires that certifiers assess a farm or ranch in five areas: soil and water conservation; safe and fair working conditions for employees; limiting pesticide use and toxicity with integrated pest management; animal welfare; and habitat conservation. Industry experts give it high marks. To date, the Food Alliance has certified almost 350 food producers--a number that's grown nearly 79 percent in the past four years.

Demeter Biodynamic 
This label also takes a whole-farm approach. Not only does it require that foods be produced organically, without the use of synthetic pesticides, fertilizers, or animal by-products, it also prohibits the use of genetic engineering. It requires that 10 percent of a farm's total land be set aside for fostering biodiversity and the humane treatment of animals. The focus is on whole-farm certification instead of on a particular crop or area.

Some certifiers promote a very specific form of sustainability not covered under the organic umbrella--like protecting salmon streams in the Pacific Northwest from farm runoff, chemicals, and erosion. Salmon-Safe certification is often combined with USDA Organic to provide a "beyond organic" certification. To date it has accredited more than 60,000 farm acres and more than 200 vineyards.

Bird Friendly 
Developed by the Smithsonian Migratory Bird Center, this label independently certifies organic shade-grown coffee. Tree canopy height, plant diversity, shade coverage, and streamside plant borders must all meet specific criteria. Certified shade-grown coffee farms provide important sanctuaries for migrating birds. About 1,400 producers grow Bird Friendly coffee, and sales reached more than $3.5 million in 2008.

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