6 Common Food Labels + What They Really Mean

mbg Senior Sustainability Editor By Emma Loewe
mbg Senior Sustainability Editor
Emma Loewe is the Sustainability Editor at mindbodygreen and the author of "The Spirit Almanac: A Modern Guide To Ancient Self Care."

Variety may be the spice of life, but these days grocery stores have taken it to an extreme. And with competing health claims lining every aisle, it can be hard to filter the beneficial labels from the bogus ones.

This guide will help you decide which labels to look for based on the things you actually care about. Keep these in mind during your next weekend shop!

1. If you care about animal welfare…

6 Common Food Labels + What They Really Mean

Go for the Certified Humane label.

This label is certified by a nonprofit called Humane Farm Animal Care. Its strict standards require that animals have access to fresh water, quality feed, and ample roaming space. Certified Humane meat is also guaranteed to be antibiotic- and hormone-free.

But be wary of Cage-Free eggs.

More than 90 percent of eggs in the U.S. come from chickens raised in conventional cages — cramped spaces that offer about 67 square inches of space. To put that number into perspective, a standard sheet of printer paper is 93 square inches. An index card is 40.

While eggs certified cage-free by the USDA weren’t laid in these tiny enclosures, they don’t come from idyllic open fields either. Cage-free eggs often come from aviaries — open industrial barn rooms that house hundreds to thousands of hens at a time. Crowded aviaries breed dangerous competition, and stronger animals often slaughter weaker ones.

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2. If you care about eating organic...

6 Common Food Labels + What They Really Mean

Go for the USDA Certified label.

Organic food is produced without pesticides or chemical additives. Polls show that nearly half of today’s shoppers prefer organic over conventional, and are more likely to pay top dollar for it. Producers are catching on to these shifts in preference, and there are now 19 third-party organic labeling schemes across the country.

Though not perfect, the USDA labeling system is the most trusted of the bunch. It puts farmers through a tedious, and oftentimes expensive, certification process that tests factors like soil quality, pest control, and animal-raising practices.

But remember that there are varying degrees of organic products.

Unfortunately, a USDA Certified Organic label doesn’t ensure that food is completely free of chemical additives. It actually means that 95-99 percent of a product (by weight) has been certified organic. A “Made With Organic Ingredients” seal means that a product is made with at least 70 percent organic ingredients. The only way to be sure you’re completely steering clear of potentially harmful pesticides is to buy products that have a “100% USDA Certified Organic” seal.

3. If you care about GMOs...

6 Common Food Labels + What They Really Mean

Go for the Non-GMO Project Verification seal.

The debate over GMO food has been heating up lately, and if you’re on team pro-labeling, it’s time to make Non-GMO Project Verified seal your new best friend. The project, developed in California in 2003, tests food to ensure that it’s free of all genetically modified ingredients. Reminder: If something is 100 percent certified organic, by definition it’s also free of GMOs.

But be wary of "natural" claims.

A recent Consumer Reports survey shows that about two-thirds of consumers believe the term natural to mean "free of artificial ingredients and GMOs." Don’t be fooled — the FDA actually hasn’t developed a definition for the word, so it means next to nothing when applied to food.

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4. If you care about ethical production...

6 Common Food Labels + What They Really Mean

Look out for Fair Trade Certified.

Fairtrade International is a nonprofit that grants its Fair Trade Label based on economic, well-being, and environmental health criteria. Think: ensuring that workers are paid above minimum wage and checking to see that small-scale producers have created safe work environments. You can find this label on products like cocoa, tea, and sugar, because these industries are notoriously volatile in poor countries. It’s also on certain jewelry and clothing brands.

But be wary of bogus labels.

Fraudsters around the world have labeled conventional food Fair Trade in a scheme to bump up its price. Steer clear of people looking to capitalize on the public’s interest in ethically produced goods by making sure the official Fairtrade’s logo is on your groceries.

5. If you care about health benefits...

6 Common Food Labels + What They Really Mean

Look out for Whole Grains.

Whole grains have more fiber and essential nutrients than their refined counterparts, and they've been shown to improve heart health. Some processed carbs are actually dyed darker to make them appear healthier, so don’t go by your rice's or oatmeal’s color alone. Make sure it has "Whole Grains" on the front of its packaging, or that whole grains are high up in its ingredient list.

But be wary of Multigrain labels.

While it may sound healthy, the word multigrain usually means just that — a product was made using multiple grains (usually refined ones with limited health benefits).

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6. If you care about grass-fed animals…

6 Common Food Labels + What They Really Mean

Look out for the Food Alliance label.

The Food Alliance is a nonprofit that places a label on products that come from animals raised outdoors on a forage-based diet. That means no grains or grain by-products go into any of its certified meat. Its voluntary certification program also makes sure that animals are not treated with hormones or antibiotics.

But be wary of USDA Process Verified Grassfed.

The term grass-fed conjures images of cows grazing on fresh green grass in a sunny open pasture. Unfortunately, this imagined ideal doesn’t always pan out. In 2007, the FDA ruled that an animal can be called USDA grass-fed as long as it’s fed some sort of grass during its lifetime — but this doesn’t have to happen outside. Meat can qualify even if the animals are confined in a small pen and sporadically fed hay.

Preview image courtesy of Getty Images

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