With today’s often bewildering health claims on food product packages and labels, it can be difficult to discern which food label claims are trustworthy. Modern food companies use catchy terms to help sell and add perceived value to their products. Common examples include, locally grown, free-range, hormone free, GMO free, and natural. How does one know whether these claims are factual, regulated by the government or third-party certifiers, misused, or simply “green washing”? It can be hard and often time consuming to research these claims, so in this Farm-to-Fork Column, I am hoping to help shed some light on the meaning of some of these food labels so that you can make your own informed food purchases.
Organic (aka Certified Organic) foods must adhere to strictly regulated federal standards under the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) National Organic Program. This certification is mandatory for farmers selling over $5,000 in annual products. To say a product is “organic,” 95% or more of the ingredients must be organic and grown with fewer pesticides and without synthetic fertilizers or Genetically Modified or Genetically Engineered (GE) products. For meat products, animals must be fed organic feed and raised without the use of antibiotics. Organic doesn’t strictly define production practices related to space per animal or outdoor access requirements. The USDA has also ruled that hydroponic and aquaponic products remain eligible for organic certification. Processed organic foods cannot contain artificial ingredients unless they are also reviewed and cannot contain preservatives or artificial flavors or colors.
No-spray/pesticide free products have no third-party or legal verification, but these claim to use no pesticides, herbicides, or fungicides.
Natural products have little government regulation, but Consumer Reports has found that 62 percent of shoppers seek out the label “natural.” This claim doesn’t mean no pesticides or antibiotics, nor if the animals are raised on pasture or feedlots, etc. The USDA defines natural as a product containing no artificial ingredients or added colors and is only minimally processed (not fundamentally altering the raw product). The label must explain the use of the term “natural” (e.g., no added colorings).
Naturally-raised is a term that is not allowed to be used on a label according to the USDA- Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS), however, some companies still use this term on their websites. Certified Naturally Grown is a non-profit organization that tailors to small-scale and direct-market farmers using natural methods. The label uses participatory guidance system that employs a peer-reviewed inspection process built on local networks. There is not third-party verifier of these standards.
Non-GMO/GE (genetically modified/genetically engineered or bioengineered) is defined by the USDA-FSIS. This claim can only be made if the product has been audited by a third-party certification body that has made their standards for certification publicly transparent on a website and are truthful. Non-GMO doesn’t necessarily address larger environmental or welfare issues associated with intensive farming.
Genetically Modified Organisms (GMOs)/Genetically modified (GM)/ Genetically engineered (GE)/Genetically improved foods (GIFs) are plants or animals that have genetically altered traits or genes that would not normally be there. Essentially, genes are copied from one organism that has the desired trait and transferred into the genetic code of another organism. Gene editing introduces genes from the same species. GMO’s do not have to be labeled. There are public concerns about the environmental and human health impacts of GMO foods such as the use of environmentally damaging pesticides.
Biodynamic agriculture is based on the work of the Austrian philosopher, Rudolf Steiner. It is strictly regulated and goes beyond organic, envisioning that the farm is a self-sustaining organism. Farmers don’t use pesticides or synthetic fertilizers, but utilize cover crops, compost, and set aside at least 10 percent of their total acreage for biodiversity. Farmers utilize strict animal and mineral preparations and the rhythms of the sun, moon, planets, and stars to guide their planting and harvesting practices. The entire farm is certified by the Demeter Association, Inc. Interestingly, Teton County, Idaho has three certified Biodynamic Farms.
Grassfed as defined by the USDA-FSIS refers to the diet that animals are fed prior to harvest and processing. The animals are required to only eat the diet claimed for the lifetime of the animal, except for milk consumed prior to weaning. This label can only be applied to meat products derived from cattle that consume forage, and the animals cannot be fed grain or grain by-products. Claims not verified by a trusted third-party certifier are not regulated. The label also doesn’t indicate if animals were given antibiotics or hormones or offer any assurances about animal welfare practices. FSIS doesn’t require any on-farm verification, just a signed affidavit from the farmer.
Hormone and antibiotic free labels are not a legal or regulated definition and are not permitted for use on the label, however some companies still use the description on their websites.
Free range and cage free are unverified claims. While most laying hens are raised in cages, boiler or meat chickens are never raised in cages. The USDA-FSIS defines free range as poultry that have access to the outdoors (like an open door) for at least 51% of their lives, although the conditions of the outdoor area and whether the animal actually goes outdoors are not verified. There are no other assurances about animal welfare or environmental practices, or the feed given to the birds.
Locally grown products are a subjective term, but commonly refer to food and farm products that are grown within a 100 to 200-mile radius before consumption. Like many other claims that are not third party or organically certified, these claims are not regulated and there is no legal definition.
While these terms may spur more questions than answers, it can behoove us to think more deeply about the food choices we make and the power of food marketing. Many consumers like to know the farmers that grow their food and if they could visit the farm their food comes from if necessary. The value of supporting local food producers cannot always be verified with a food label. Supporting farmers and ranchers at our farmers markets or through Community Supported Agriculture (CSA’s) are just a couple of ways to become more informed and connected to our food system. For further information about food labels, check out Consumer Reports, the USDA-Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS), and A Greener World’s “Food Labels Exposed” app or website.
Jennifer Werlin is an Extension Educator in Community Food Systems for the University of Idaho in Teton County. University of Idaho Cooperative Extension offers research-based educational programs and publications in the areas of agriculture, community development and family and consumer science. Learn more at www.uidaho.edu or call 208-354-2961. The University of Idaho does not discriminate in education or employment on the basis of human differences, as required by state and federal laws.