Lost in the Food Labels

food labels' width=

You’re standing in the grocery aisle, faced with a choice. Free-range chicken or a hormone-free bird? Organic coffee or fair trade coffee? You’re not alone. These days, packages come plastered with label claims designed to pull at your green strings. So we vetted with Kate Geagan, a Utah-based dietitian and author of Go Green Get Lean: Trim Your Waistline with the Ultimate Low-Carbon Footprint Diet (Rodale Books), to help sort through the labeling chaos.

USDA Organic

Find on: Everything from kale to ketchup

Food is produced without the use of pesticides, genetic modification or ionizing radiation. Organic meat, eggs and dairy products come from animals fed 100% organic feed containing no animal byproducts, antibiotics or growth hormones. “New stricter rules from the USDA stipulate that animals producing organic meat and dairy have to spend at least four months of the year roaming fields and nibbling on green stuff,” says Geagan. Yet, the certification lacks teeth when it comes to animal welfare or safe working conditions, and some small-scale farmers can’t afford the certification.

Certified Humane

Find on: Poultry, beef, pork, lamb

This certification and labeling program sets rigorous standards addressing food, shelter and compassionate slaughter. “So a pig can be a pig by engaging in natural behavior,” Geagan says. Another third-party certified seal is “Animal Welfare Approved”—a program that audits and certifies family farms raising their animals humanely. “Generally, third-party certifications such as these mean a lot more than something such as ‘eco-friendly’ devised by a savvy marketer in the boardroom,” notes Geagan.


Find on: Beef, poultry, pork, dairy

The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) currently allows hormones to be pumped into cattle to spurt growth and milk production, so look for beef or dairy with this label to opt out. But hormones are not allowed in raising poultry and pork, so producers that claim “hormone-free” for these meats are guilty of irrelevance. The term “no antibiotics” may be used on labels for poultry products if the producer can demonstrate that the animals were raised without antibiotics or an appropriate withdrawal period was adhered to from the time the antibiotics were administered to slaughter.

Non-GMO Project Verified

Find on: Cereal, tofu, bread, chocolate, pasta, dairy products

Manufacturers are not obliged to say whether they use genetically modified ingredients such as soy and corn, so some have decided to adorn their products with this seal indicating that all the ingredients used to make the product are below 0.9% GMO (genetically modified organism) as tested by the nonprofit Non-GMO Project. They can’t guarantee that no cross-contamination occurred, but this is much more rigorous than other frivolous claims such as “GMO-free” that have not been verified by a third party.

Marine Stewardship Council (MSC) Sustainable 

Find on: Seafood

Canned fish, fish fillets and other seafood products bearing the third-party MSC seal come from abundant, well-managed stocks such as wild Alaskan salmon and are harvested using less-destructive means—i.e., no bottom trawling allowed. The certification does not, however, assure your catch of the day is free of contaminants such as PCBs and mercury.


Find on: Cereal, breads, crackers, tortillas

“Multi-grain” only means that more than one type of grain was used to make the item. But it doesn’t tell you how much of those grains are included or how heavily they’re refined. Peek at the ingredient list of “multi-grain,” “whole wheat” or even “100% wheat” packaged grain products and you’ll often find the first ingredient is some form of wheat flour, a euphemism for white flour. To get more nutrients out of your toast, look for the word “whole” in the first ingredient, as in “whole wheat flour” or “whole rye flour.”


Find on: Beef, lamb, bison, goat

Studies suggest that grassfed meat is healthier, but the term “grassfed” can be used loosely. Look for products marked “American Grassfed,” as they meet rigorous standards set forth by the American Grassfed Association including certifying meat that comes only from animals that ate nothing but their mother’s milk and fresh grass or grass-type hay from birth to harvest. As a bonus, no hormones or antibiotics are permitted.

Free-Range and Cage-Free

Find on: Eggs, poultry products

Producers are free to use this sunny logo if their birds have access to the outdoors, “but the ease of this access and the amount of time they actually spend in the sunshine is unregulated,” says Geagan. And “range” can mean anything from a large, grassy field to a narrow pathway between barns to a small, concrete slab. If you want to be sure your eggs come from well-tended birds, you need to call the company, or, better yet, visit a local farm and see for yourself. “Cage-free” means just that—the birds live outside of cages. But this often affords only marginally better wing-to-wing crowding in a shed that also involves the unceremonious severing of the beak.

Trans Fat Free

Find on: Bakery products, buttery spreads

As of 2006, the FDA made it mandatory for food manufacturers to list the trans fat content of their packaged foods. But someone at the agency must have missed math class. Thanks to a Sasquatch-sized loophole, products claiming “0 grams trans fat” may contain up to 0.49 grams of trans fat per serving. Keep in mind the safest intake of this heart-hampering fat is zero. “If vegetable shortening or partially hydrogenated vegetable oil is found in the ingredient list, it’s best to leave the product on the shelf,” says Geagan. “Those terms mean there is some trans fat present, even if the front label claims otherwise.”


Find on: Snack foods, bars, cereal, pizza, pasta

Saunter through the grocery aisles these days and you’ll notice an increasing amount of shelf space, or even entire sections, devoted to a dizzying array of gluten-free products as awareness surrounding celiac disease and gluten-intolerance spreads. While the FDA currently works to define how many parts per million (ppm) of gluten is allowed in a product marked “gluten-free,” most companies are currently assuring no more than 20 ppm of gluten sneaks into their products. Until the law has passed, however, you should check with specific vendors on what they mean by “gluten-free” if your goal is absolutely zero gluten.

Fair Trade

Find on: Coffee, tea, sugar, bananas, chocolate

Fair-trade certification goes a long way in giving you confidence that your morning java or afternoon chocolate fix comes from farms with safe working conditions and where farmers were paid fair prices for their labor. But fair trade does not guarantee organic farming.


Find on: Almost everything except fruits and vegetables

The marketing around “all-natural” is so egregious that it’s now plastered on a number of items with a laundry list of ingredients far removed from nature, such as corn syrup and white flour. “You might think this claim means that no hormones or antibiotics were allowed, but this is not the case,” Geagan says.

MATTHEW KADEY is a dietitian and freelance journalist living in Canada.