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In the United States, there are different certifying food labels that could be on one of your pantry items right now. But what do each of these mean? There are certain standards set in place by third-party agencies to check your food for unwanted processing. Not all of these labels are cut from the same cloth, so I will be going through what these food labels are (or not) telling you. 

CERTIFIED FOOD LABELS: Certified or tested by a third party regulatory agency 

USDA ORGANIC: regulates labeling requirements for organic agricultural products.

USDA Organic food labels can be found in dairy, produce, meat, processed foods, condiments and beverages. Food products labeled “organic” must contain at least 95% organic ingredients with no synthetic growth hormones, antibiotics, pesticides, biotechnology, synthetic ingredients or irradiation used in production or processing. 

USDA certified organic foods are grown and processed according to federal guidelines addressing, among many factors, soil quality, animal raising practices, pest and weed control, and use of additives. Organic producers rely on natural substances and physical, mechanical, or biologically based farming methods to the fullest extent possible.

CERTIFIED NATURALLY GROWN: USDA Organic, but not grown on USDA certified farm

This label denotes the food was grown using the same standards as those for organic, but not on a farm actually certified by the National Organic Program of the USDA. Certified Naturally Grown (CNG) offers peer-review certification to farmers and beekeepers producing food, flowers, and fiber for their local communities by working in harmony with nature, without relying on synthetic chemicals or GMOs.

“Natural” is a term present on a lot of food products (some of which you’d hardly call natural at all), so look closely at the label. The Certified Naturally Grown label indicates that someone is certifying that it is indeed natural, rather than just using the word “Natural” for marketing purposes.

FAIR TRADE: Ensures farm workers are fairly compensated

Workers must receive fair wages, safe and equitable working conditions and the right to join trade unions; child or forced labor is completely prohibited.  Crops must also be grown, produced and processed in a manner that supports social development, economic development and environmental development.  

Today, fair trade has grown into a leading market-based model of sustainable production, trade, and consumption. The success of core products like coffee has attracted pioneering brands and retailers in other industries including apparel, home goods, fisheries, and more. Together, we are innovating the fair trade model and creating impact for farmers, workers, and fishermen worldwide.


ANIMAL WELFARE APPROVED: Fair treatment of animals required

Acknowledged by Consumer Reports as the only “highly meaningful” food label for farm animal welfare, outdoor access and sustainability, Certified Animal Welfare Approved by AGW (AWA) is an independent, nonprofit farm certification program—and now one of the nation’s top 5 fastest growing certifications and label claims.

AWA states that the basic premise of their standards is that animals must be able to behave naturally and be in a state of physical and psychological well-being. They only certify family farms (charging no fees to participating farmers) and state that animals must be raised on pasture or range.

AMERICAN HUMANE CERTIFIED: Another certification ensuring livestock is being treated humanely

The American Humane Certified program (formerly the Free Farmed program) was created by the American Humane Association in 2000 to ensure that animals raised for dairy, poultry, beef, veal, goat, swine, turkey and bison products are raised in a humane manner. 

Farms and slaughterhouses adhere to a policy prohibiting animal abuse, and ensure that the animals’ basic physical needs are met. Employees are trained in animal welfare and handling. Farms and slaughterhouses are also inspected annually.


NON-GMO PROJECT VERIFIED: Products grown without genetic engineering

The Non-GMO Project is a non-profit organization that provides the only third-party labeling program in North America for products grown without using genetic engineering. They verify that the process products go through, from seed to shelf, are produced according to their rigorous best practices for GMO avoidance.

The Non-GMO Project Product Verification Program is North America’s only third-party verification for non-GMO food and products. Third-party verification is the highest quality system when it comes to product labeling and certifications because it ensures products have been comprehensively evaluated by an independent party for compliance with a standard developed by industry experts and stakeholders.

GRASSFED: pasture animals only being fed grass throughout lifespan

USDA has a grass fed standard for ruminant animals like cows and goats, which states that these animals must be fed only grass and forage during the growing season. The American Grassfed Association is one organization that certifies beef, bison, dairy, lamb and goat that is fed only on pasture, in addition to being raised without antibiotics, synthetic hormones, confinement and with standards for high animal welfare. 

Returning cattle and other ruminant animals to the land for their entire lives can result in multiple benefits. This includes restoring soil microbial diversity, and making the land more resilient to flooding and drought. It can boost the nutrient content and flavor of livestock and plants. And because grasses trap atmospheric carbon dioxide, the grass-fed system can also help fight climate change. But it does require more land to produce the same amount of meat.


NON-CERTIFIED FOOD LABELS (Not certified or tested by any third party regulatory agency)

HORMONE-FREE / RBGH-FREE: Not as useful as you may think 

This label means that the farmer has chosen not to inject his or her cows with any artificial growth hormones, like rBGH, a genetically engineered growth hormone. The label is also used on beef and chicken products, where the animal was raised without growth hormones or steroids. 

USDA prohibits giving hormones to chickens, so the label doesn’t mean much — all chicken you buy will be hormone-free whether it’s labeled or not.

RAISED WITHOUT ANTIBIOTICS: Should be required in your food

Chickens, pigs, and cattle raised on industrial farms are routinely fed low doses of antibiotics (the same drugs we rely on to keep ourselves and our families in good health) to make them grow faster and compensate for overcrowding and unsanitary living conditions. This also means that meat or dairy was raised without the use of antibiotics.

GE-FREE / NON-GMO: Lack of regulation makes this label redundant

There are no federal regulations on labeling of food products containing genetically engineered (GE) ingredients or genetically modified organisms (GMOs); however, there are many companies that have taken the initiative to label their products as GE-Free or Non-GMO to protect consumers. 

Food products that use GE-Free or Non-GMO food labels are regulated by individual companies and organizations and establish varying degrees of GMO allowance in their products, ranging from 100% GE-Free to trace levels of GMOs allowed in products. Often, the companies require certification or affidavits from farmers that the materials were not genetically modified in any way.

ALL NATURAL: What does this even mean?

While many products have “all natural” labeling or packaging, there is no universal standard or definition for this claim.

FREE-RANGE: another label without uniformity.

Free-range poultry is defined as birds that spend part of their time outside (whether that’s 10 minutes per month or 10 hours per day) and don’t live in cages. However, the USDA doesn’t have a legal definition of free-range chicken eggs and there are also no standardized or regulated definitions for free-range beef or pork.

Thank you for reading, and don’t forget to check back next week!


Get Well,

Dr. Shel

P.S. Don’t forget to watch the most recent episode of my podcast, Get Well with Dr. Shel!

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