Organic. Natural. Free-range. Those in search of healthier food can find themselves in a whirlwind of labels. Some, like the certified organic mark, can help the discerning shopper. Many -– including the word “natural” itself -– tell us little about what’s in our food and how it was produced.
The labeling issue has become more important as specialty markets come of age -- organics, for instance, are now an $11 billion industry in the United States -- and food makers realize that certain terms on their labels mean higher prices. Consumers show their willingness to pay an extra quarter or two for cage-free eggs or an extra buck for vegetarian-fed beef. But if some claims are meaningful, others aren’t; a few can be downright misleading.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture has weighed all sorts of programs to manage labels that deal with how food is made. (The Food and Drug Administration handles health and nutrition claims.) Only one national label program has emerged: Organic foods have legal standards and certification requirements -- and only since 2002, when the USDA’s organic label began appearing. The agency does occasionally approve “process verified” private labels –- for some beef and pork brands, for example –- but more as a truth-in-advertising service than official review.
Ultimately, the best way to ensure comfort with your food is to ask the people who made it. Needless to say, that process can be time consuming: Urvashi Rangan, director of Consumer Union’s Eco-labels.org project, spends up to 30 hours on each claim. “It’s a question of transparency and letting the consumer know what’s going on,” she says.
Don’t have that much time? You might speak with buyers at your local market. Not all supermarkets perform due diligence, but some do pride themselves on being able to answer these questions. Food makers’ Web sites may also provide answers.
As the USDA's only certified standard, the organic label has effectively defined specific requirements, but also has been a lightning rod for its multiple labeling tiers and for what some food activists perceive as loopholes in the rules.
Certification must occur at each step of the production process. A farmer must be certified to grow organic crops or raise organic animals. All ingredients in organic products must be individually certified. The final products must be certified too, along with the producer.
Fruits and vegetables must be grown without synthetic fertilizers, chemicals or sewage sludge. Genetic engineering of food is prohibited, as are irradiation and certain other processes –- though it can be difficult to guarantee foods are totally free from genetically modified organisms (GMOs).
Any synthetic ingredients in an organic product must be on an approved national list, and must be reviewed every five years.
Only a product that contains 95 to 100 percent organic ingredients is considered a true organic product -– and only these may carry the USDA’s “Certified Organic” seal. While use of the USDA seal is optional, the certifying agency's name must be listed.
Some organic products go so far as to specify the precise amount of organic ingredients: “98 percent organic.” Only a product made entirely from organic material –- fresh organic produce, for example –- can use the label “100 percent organic.”
Made with organic ingredients
These products must be made by an organic producer, but contain between 70 and 94 percent organic ingredients. They cannot be called organic products and cannot use the USDA seal.
In these, specific organic ingredients are labeled as such on ingredient lists and sometimes highlighted on the front. The organic certifying authority must be listed on the package.
This parsing can be difficult, though, because the currency of the word “organic” often prompts companies to put it in large type close to the name of the product. A careful examination of the company name and trademark, as well as the product name –- better yet, some well-placed questions to the producer, certifier or your local store -– can help sort out more confusing examples. Violators of organic standards can be fined up to $10,000 per offense.
Plenty of other labels show up besides the organic tag, all with varying degrees of respectibility and meaning. Rangan's Web site tracks many of them.
Probably the most used of the informal food monikers, and perhaps the least meaningful. The USDA has basic guidelines for the use of the word “natural” in relation to meat and poultry products -– no artificial ingredients or colors, and minimal processing -– but they are merely paper guidelines and tell you almost nothing about what what an animal was fed or how it was raised.
That isn’t to say companies using the natural label don’t take steps to make their food healthier. Often, “natural” products contain additional information to explain what they do or do not contain. Some, relying on terms like “100 percent natural,” hope to signal their products are free from synthetic ingredients or additives. But the definitions are informal and rest with the producer.
Free-range or cage-free
Both are unregulated terms left up to food makers.
“Cage-free” is slightly more useful. It won't tell you how much space animals are given, but it is precise in explaining that poultry is kept outside a cage and has had some time to roam freely.
Grass-fed or pasture-raised
These usually refer to meat and poultry that eat grass, silage or hay. However, they are not regulated and no requirements determine how long an animal must feed on grass to be called “grass-fed.” Almost all cattle are fed on grass at some point, but many are “finished” at big feedlots, where they receive high-calorie diets of corn, grain and animal protein to fatten them.
“Pasture-raised” has the same problems, as it doesn’t indicate how much time an animal spends in open fields and whether it was given animal feed; almost all cows, for example, spend their earlier lives in a pasture.
By comparison, "pasture-finished" has more meaning, as it implies the animals lived most of their lives in the field and weren't sent to a feedlot for fattening. More information is usually helpful in determining these animals’ diets and actual living conditions.
Grain-fed or vegetarian diet
With more U.S. consumers worried after last December’s discovery of mad cow disease -– thought to be transmitted by livestock protein in cattle feed -– the “100 percent vegetarian diet” label can be helpful as a guarantee that your beef comes from cows that received no animal protein in their feed.
However, neither claim is regulated and farmers are responsible for verifying the claim.
Many animal products contain traces of natural hormones, so producers -- including organic producers -- have largely turned to new language, such as "no hormones added."
This is especially notable in milk, which has been under scrutiny in recent years for the presence of synthetic bovine growth hormone (rBGH or rBST). Some milk producers continue to maintain the hormones are harmless, despite increased consumer resistance.
No GMOs or GMO-free
Refer to products made without the use of genetically-modified organisms. While testing can be done to show that only trace amounts of GMOs (maybe 1 part per million) remain in a product, the tests are not regulated and do not constitute an official U.S. standard.
Organic foods bar the use of GMO ingredients, though some products may specify only certain ingredients that are GMO-free. Still, says Craig Minowa of the Organic Consumers Association, no-GMO labels indicate a producer’s commitment to find unmodified ingredients. “That labeling is still really important,” he says.
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