Untangling Food Labels

Food is our most fundamental and intimate connection to nature. What we choose to eat impacts the environment, and dictates our health in a myriad of ways. If we care about our personal wellbeing and the quality of life for generations to come, then we have to start paying attention to what’s at the end of our forks!

Food labels relay important information about how food was grown (or raised), allowing consumers to choose the items that most closely align with their values and concerns. To put it another way, certifications regulate and ensure certain standards of production, which consumers can then use their purchasing power to back.

By providing the information necessary for consumers to make educated purchases, we create a capitalistic avenue for propagating those farming systems that better support farmworker health, environmental protection and food safety. We have the power to shift the food industry in a more positive direction – simply by by voting with our dollar. Food labels provide the necessary information to do this much more effectively. 

Of course, it’s important to recognize that certifications are intrinsically imperfect because they can’t possibly paint the whole picture. They’re not a true replacement for knowing the farmer and the farmer’s farming practices firsthand. For example, a sweet potato bearing an organic label might have been harvested from a small-scale, diversified farm nourished by on-site composting and conscientious cover-cropping, or it may have been grown in a giant monoculture field suffering from erosion, poor soil health and a lack of biodiversity. Although in neither case was the sweet potato doused in harmful chemicals and synthetic fertilizers (a huge plus), the two production systems in which it might have been grown have very different impacts on the environment (as well as on the nutrient density of the potato). 

Although food labels will probably never be the full solution, they’re still definitely a useful and important tool. Food labels are essential for helping us to discern which items are better to buy when we’re in the grocery store, or in other situations when face-to-face contact with the farmer isn’t possible. They help us to choose better products for our health and for the environment, provided that we know what they mean. In fact, recognizing which certifications have true value, and which are mere marketing ploys, is one of the keys to effective food purchasing in this modern world. 

Below are a few of the most commonly used certifications and food labels. Outlining what each food label means in legal terms, I’ve made suggestions about which to buy into (i.e. which are effective and important) and which are probably best to ignore.


What does it mean?

The FDA does not provide or uphold an official definition for the term “natural,” although it’s often used on food labels. The FDA’s guideline – or stance – on the use of the word “natural” is not legally enforceable, nor does it say anything about processes including genetic engineering, pasteurization or irradiation. To date, more than a hundred class action lawsuits have accused food companies of misleading consumers by labeling products that contain synthetic, artificial or GMO ingredients “natural”.

To buy or not to buy? NO

The use of the term “natural” on food labels is incredibly problematic. Without a legally-enforceable definition of the term and oversight of its use, the word “natural” on food labels means nothing.


What does it mean?

For a crop to be labeled USDA organic, it can only be grown in soil on which no prohibited substances have been applied for at least three years. “Prohibited Substances” include most (but not all) synthetic fertilizers and pesticides. Organically processed foods cannot contain artificial preservatives, colors or flavors. Their ingredients must be organic, with a few exceptions made for products that cannot technically be called organic due to their natural makeup (e.g. enzymes in yogurt, pectin in most jams and baking soda in many baked goods).

When a packaged product contains the label, “made with organic [ingredient]” (whatever that ingredient may be), the product must contain at least 70% organically produced ingredients. The remaining 30% of the product’s ingredients cannot be genetically engineered, but do not have to be organic.

Organic meat can only come from animals raised in living conditions that “accommodate their natural behaviors”. The animals must be fed organic feed and forage, and cannot receive or be injected by antibiotics or growth hormones.

To buy or not to buy? YES

The organic label is a huge step in a sustainable direction, as it helps consumers to buy products free of most herbicides and pesticides, and animal meat free of antibiotics and hormones. It ensures that farm workers are being exposed to fewer harmful chemicals, and requires that farms pay at least some attention to the long-term health of their soil. It means less chemical runoff into our rivers and streams, and more nutrient dense food being grown. However, on most organic farms, the land is tilled, releasing carbon into the atmosphere and damaging the soil structure and microbiome. Within large operations, monoculture production is the norm, and animals rarely have adequate access to the outdoors.

It’s important to know the farmer you are buying from – if you can find a small-scale, diversified farmer at your farmers market, then organic really begins to take on meaning. And of course, it’s important to remember that even some farms that are not officially USDA certified organic may actually be using organic farming practices. Don’t be afraid to ask your farmer!


What does it mean?

“Biodynamic farming” refers to a holistic approach to producing and growing food that’s based on developing agricultural systems that mimic native ecosystems. By creating systems of farming that resemble nature and keep intact important ecosystem services, farmers are able to sustain and even improve the land. Each parcel of land is recognized as an individualized entity that requires a customized farming and production plan. As a result, no biodynamic farm looks the same as another. The goal of biodynamic farms is to create self-sustaining, closed-loop systems that require no outside inputs, nixing the use of harmful chemicals and industrialized farming practices.

To buy or not to buy? YES

Biodynamic farms take a big step beyond organic. Not only do they avoid the use of harmful chemicals, they also apply lessons from nature to create biodiverse, abundant and resilient farms that improve the quality and health of the soil. Water conservation is considered, and farms aim to be self-sufficient, recycling nutrients and other resources on the farm. “Certified biodynamic” is perhaps the closest label on the market to regenerative.

Global Animal Partnership Certified  

What does it mean?

Global Animal Partnership provides a tiered step-by-step certification standard for the raising of livestock. This is a third-party certification program that is primarily concerned with the humane treatment of animals.

To buy or not to buy? YES

Step 4, 5 and 5+ certifications require that farms provide their animals with access to pasture, so buy from farms who have at achieved at least Step 4 approval and certification.

No Added Hormones

What does it mean?

USDA certifies that no hormones have been fed to the animal during its lifetime.

To buy or not to buy? NO

This label is a bit of a marketing ploy in some cases, as the U.S. Department of Agriculture already prohibits the use of hormones in the pig and poultry industries.

In the case of beef, a “No Hormones Added” label means that the producer offered the USDA sufficient documentation showing that no hormones have been used in the raising of the animals. Unfortunately, this label says nothing about whether or not the animal was given antibiotics and the animal likely lived its life in confinement.

Raised without Antibiotics

What does it mean?

The USDA certifies that no antibiotics were used in the raising of the animals. In other words, the USDA has received sufficient documentation from the producer demonstrating that the animals in question were raised without antibiotics.

To buy or not to buy? YES

The use of antibiotics in animal husbandry is one of the leading causes of antibiotic resistance. [60] By feeding animals low-dose antibiotics on such a grand scale, we have created the perfect environment for bacteria in the local environment to evolve and find ways around many of our drugs. Antibiotic-resistant bacteria then arrive in our kitchen on the uncooked meat that we buy, where they pose risks to human health.

NOTE: While the “raised without antibiotics” label is important in dealing with the use of antibiotics in agriculture, it says nothing about whether or not animals have been fed added hormones or have been raised in confinement. Use this label in conjunction with others to make sure that you are buying the best product.


What does it mean?

According to the USDA, cage-free eggs are those eggs produced by hens housed in a “building, room, or enclosed area” that allows for unlimited access to food and water. Farmers do not have to provide the hens with access to the outdoors, but they must have freedom to roam within the enclosed area.

To buy or not to buy? NO

Chickens in cage-free situations are at least allowed to stand and move around, which is an improvement from being confined to battery cages. However, “cage-free” hens are still far from being humanely raised, as hens are often crammed in large buildings and live in unsanitary conditions without access to natural sunlight or grass.


What does it mean?

According to the USDA, eggs labeled free range must be produced by hens housed in a building or area with unlimited access to food and water. They must have access to an outdoors area during their laying cycle – an area that may be fenced in or covered with a netting material.

To buy or not to buy? NO

Although free-range hens must be legally allowed to have access to the outdoors, that access may be severely limited in size and quality. Doors to the outside may be small, allowing only a few hens to exit at a time and the outside area may be nothing but a small, muddied pen. Most chicks in large operations spend their entire young lives confined in the indoors, so when they begin to reach maturity and are given a door to the outdoors, they likely won’t venture out anyways due to fear.

NOTE: The HFAC Certified Humane “free-range” certification is much more thorough and extensive than the USDA certification, requiring at least 2 square feet of outdoors space per hen, and ensuring that all the hens spend at least 6 hours of each day outside.[23] This is a much more comprehensive and humane certification, and more closely aligns with the sentiment behind “free-range”.

To buy or not to buy? YES


What does it mean?

Look for “certified humane pasture-raised”. Each pasture-raised hen (through the HFAC’s Certified Humane system only) must have access to 108 square feet of outdoors area. The fields must be rotated and the hens should have access to the outdoors year-round. “Pasture-raised” is not a certification offered by the USDA.

To buy or not to buy? YES

Certified Humane Pasture-Raised is by far the most humane and sustainable and humane certification available for hens, allowing the chickens to participate in natural behaviors, enjoy access to natural feed sources (insects, grubs, etc.) and exposure to natural light. Eggs from these hens are likely to have a better nutritional profile and higher nutritional content than those produced by hens raised in more confined systems.

Grass fed

What does it mean?

The USDA Agricultural Marketing Service has rescinded the standards for the grass fed marketing claim. This means that the Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) will continue to approve producers’ grass fed claims, but it will no longer maintain official standards regarding what “grass-fed” means. In lieu of an official “grass-fed” definition, each individual producer will simply submit their unique version of “grass-fed” standards for rejection or approval by the FSIS. The FSIS will only be considering feeding protocol in their decision regarding whether to certify an operation as grass fed or not, meaning that the use of antibiotics, hormones and confinement will have no impact on whether or not producers become successfully certified operations. With little to no oversight regarding whether operations are actually adhering to the grass fed claims that they submit and no uniform standards as to what “grass-fed” means (but rather opening the phrase up to individual interpretation), the USDA grass-fed label has little to no credibility or meaning.

Thankfully, the AGA Grass Fed Certification program differs almost entirely from the USDA model. To become AGA Grass Fed Certified, animals must be fed only grass and forage for their entire lives (no grain finishing, and no added antibiotics or growth hormones). It’s required that animals are raised on pasture, rather than in confined feed lots. Additionally, AGA grass fed animals must be born and raised on American family farms. Certified AGA producers are required to engage in ranch management practices that enhance the environment and must support the humane treatment of their animals.

To buy or not to buy? YES

The AGA Grassfed Standards are much more extensive and comprehensive in their scope, and provide a clear definition of what is allowed and what is not allowed. Grassfed, pastured-raised animals are healthier and happier animals, and ultimately exponentially better for the environment and human health than feed lot or CAFO cattle. If careful timed and rotational grazing protocol is followed, ruminant animals can even help to stimulate pasture growth, increase plant biodiversity, stimulate soil microbial activity, and ultimately sequester carbon.


What does it mean?

There is no legal definition for the term “local,” as it applies to food. Ask your farmers and grocery store managers to find out how and why the label is being applied to particular produce and/or food products. Remember that local is important, both from an environmental and health standpoint (generally, the more recently produce has been harvested, the more nutrient-dense it is). Plus, it’s invaluable to support the local farming community whenever possible. However, food production and storage methods are often far more important in determining the true carbon footprint and health impact of what you are eating. “Local” says nothing about soil health and the use of pesticides and herbicides.

To buy or not to buy? Y/N

It’s important to always look beyond the “local” label, regardless of whether you’re buying directly from a farmer or in a store. If you are buying meat from a Confined Animal Feeding Operation (CAFO) just down the street, you’re probably not doing much good for the planet (or for your own health), even though the food is “local”. The same goes for buying produce from a conventional farm that utilizes heavy tilling and chemical inputs – even if it’s located near you. The gains you make by cutting transportation miles are greatly diminished by the fossil fuels going into the food production, not to mention other issues like erosion and a loss of biodiversity.

What’s the solution?

Ask questions when you see the term “local!”

Where is the farm located? How is the food produced and how are the animals raised? Is the farm importing nutrients from outside sources? Do they use pesticides and herbicides? Does the farm compost? How do they support soil health?

Asking questions will help you to determine whether or not to support a local farm.


What does it mean?

The Non-GMO Project is a third-party certification program dedicated to building and maintaining a non-genetically-modified organisms food supply. The Non-GMO Project certification program uses the term “non-GMO” rather than “GMO-free” as a way to acknowledge that it’s nearly impossible to completely eliminate the contamination of seeds, crops and other ingredients by GMOs species. However, the program’s standards are rigorous and strict, assuring that every precautions is met and as much as possible is done to maintain pure, GMO-free products. Analytical testing of high-risk raw material is completed by the non-GMO project at various stages in the food supply chain to ensure that any GMO contamination remains below specific levels (0.25% for seed materials, 0.9% for human food and products ingested or used on the skin, 1.5% for clean products, textiles and products not ingested or used on the skin, and 5% for animal feed and supplements).

NOTE: The USDA Organic certification program prohibits the use of GMOs among its participants. Farmers and processors who are certified USDA Organic are required to verify that they are not using GMOs in their products, and that they are taking steps to protect their products from contamination by GMOs.

To buy or not to buy? YES

Both the Non-GMO Project label and the USDA organic label are important tools that reliably help you avoid buying GMO foods.

Fair Trade

What does it mean?

The principle behind “fair trade” is that producers should be paid fair wages for their products. Farms that are officially Fair Trade Certified must allow freedom of association and safe working conditions. Forced child and slave labor are prohibited. From an environmental standpoint, Fair Trade criteria include the following goals: protecting water resources, promoting agricultural diversification and erosion control, restricting the use of pesticides and herbicides, banning the use of GMOs, and requiring proper management of waste, water and energy.

To buy or not to buy? Maybe

While the ideals behind the Fair Trade Certified label are laudable, it’s difficult to know which standards are being upheld in actuality, and to what degree. It can be hard to know exactly where (or to whom) the premium you pay for Fair Trade is going to. Just because a certain price is guaranteed to a cooperative, there is no guarantee that that premium is being passed down to the individual farmers.

Direct Trade

What does it mean?

Direct trade refers to a system in which roasters or retailers buy directly from growers, cutting out middlemen and certification organizations (including groups like Fair Trade Certified).

To buy or not to buy? Maybe

Again, in this case it’s difficult to know what each direct trade label means in specific, concrete terms. Companies employ a huge variety of monitoring and enforcement policies for different (self-created) standards. As a consumer, it’s tricky to know what is actually being upheld and what is not.

As an example of a more environmentally responsible and humane direct trade system, Intelligentsia Coffee and Tea requires that direct trade growers:

  1. Be committed to “sustainable environmental and social practices”.
  2. Receive a price at least 25% higher than the Fair Trade price.
  3. Have access to transparent financial disclosures from trade participants.

Intelligentsia team members are required to visit each farm or co-op at least once per harvest season to ensure that these standards are met.

Unfortunately, these are not the same standards applied by other businesses, nor do all companies utilize the same measures of oversight to ensure their standards. Additionally, without third-party supervision, there is always room for corruption.

In short, direct trade means little unless you are familiar with both the company and its standards, and with the growers from whom they buy.

Animal Welfare Approved

What does it mean?

Animal Welfare Approved (AWA) maintains rigorous standards for both farm animal welfare, and environmental policies. AWA maintains highly regulated slaughter practices and requires that all certified animals be pasture raised. AWA is also designed to increase pasture biodiversity.

To buy or not to buy? YES

Animal Welfare Approved (AWA) certification label is a great label for anyone trying to buy more sustainably and humanely raised meat. You can check out their full standards for each individual farm animal species here.

Overwhelmed? Don’t be. Just choose a few certifications to adhere to and support – those that are the most important to you and that align with your values.

Consider visiting your local farmer’s market whenever possible, joining a CSA and/or even growing some of your own food in a backyard garden or community plot. All of these practices have hugely beneficial impacts on your personal health, the strength of your community and the state of the environment.

In this world, we do our best and know that even little changes and actions go a long way. With continued persistence, consumers are already shifting the food industry in a more and more hopeful and positive direction. We have the power to be the change!