Guest Post by Sarah Al-Khayyal – What Do Food Labels Really Mean?

April 16, 2014 in Categories: by

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Sarah photoSarah Al-Khayyal is the health bent foodie behind the Paleo blog Primal Bites. An Atlanta native, Sarah is currently studying at the University of St. Andrews in Scotland for a BSc in Sustainable Development. She believes that human health and environmental health are deeply intertwined and interdependent: what’s good for you is good for the environment, and vice versa. Sarah’s dedication to the Paleo lifestyle was spurred by a desire to heal her gut and optimize her athletic performance. She created Primal Bites to share her experiences and recipes, and to be a testament to all the benefits of living a Paleo lifestyle.

“All Natural!” “Cage-free!” “Locally Grown!” “Fairtrade!” Every day we are bombarded with a slew of food label claims that are meant to help us make healthier and more informed choices. But how much meaning do these terms really have? Are they truthful or just there to draw you in? Between the fancy words and colorful labels concocted to look like legitimate certifications, it can all get very confusing. So today I’m going to shed some light on the credibility of a few of the most common and most important food labels!

So first of all, let’s distinguish between regulated claims and self-made claims.

Some terms used on labels are controlled by government regulation, but most are not. The only labels that you should trust to be 100% true are those that are regulated and audited by a third party organization. These organizations audit the entire supply chain to verify maximum integrity of the claims made on the label. Self-made claims, such as “natural” or “cage-free” are not regulated, and there is no third party verification of these claims.

So Sarah, which terms can be trusted if I see them on a food label?

Well, let me tell ya! Here’s a run through of what I think are some of the most important claims and certifications that you should be familiar with. For anyone who doesn’t want to read through all the descriptions, I underlined all of the terms that you can trust and provided an image of the certification logo to look for!

ANTIBIOTIC FREE– According to the USDA, “antibiotic free,” or “no antibiotics” can be used on labels for meat and poultry if the producer provides sufficient documentation demonstrating the animals were raised without antibiotics. So the USDA is technically accountable for the appropriate use of the term, but no verification process exists. So if you see this on a label, it may be true but you have no way of knowing for sure.

DemeterBiodynamicBIODYNAMIC Biodynamic agriculture occurs on a farm which is self-contained, self-sustaining and follows the cycles of nature. The Biodynamic certification meets organic standards (no chemical pesticides, fertilizers, herbicides or fungicides), but goes a step further with its emphasis on the generation of farm inputs from the living dynamics of the farm itself (e.g. using manure for fertilizer). Farms are also required to preserve 10% of the total acreage for biodiversity. This certification is trustworthy and audited by a third party.

CAGE-FREE- There is no regulated definition for “cage-free” and no third party auditing system. This term is often used in reference to egg laying hens, and I believe is one of the most misunderstood food labeling terms. “Cage-free” does not give any indication to the living conditions of the chickens, beyond the fact that they don’t live in cages. It’s very possible that most cage-free hens live inside over-crowded warehouses, without much (if any) access to the outside.

FairtradeFAIRTRADE– By requiring companies to pay sustainable prices (which must never fall lower than the market price), Fairtrade addresses the injustices of conventional trade, which traditionally discriminates against the poorest, weakest producers. Fairtrade International has extensive standards for production practices, hired labor, and trade, and also forbids the use of any substances on their Prohibited Materials List in the production, processing, storage and transportation of Fairtrade products. This certification is trustworthy and audited by a third party. For more information about forbidden substances, see the Prohibited Materials List.

FoodAllianceFOOD ALLIANCE– Food Alliance is a nonprofit that certifies farms, food processors and distributors for sustainable agriculture and facility management practices. This certification provides an assurance of safe and fair working conditions, environmental sustainability and humane animal treatment. This label is trustworthy and third party verified, but all management aspects may not be quite up to par: while producers must comply with a set of fixed standards, they can still become certified based on their average score in some areas—so if you’re concerned about a certain aspect of the way a Food Alliance Certified product was raised or handled it’s best to inquire with the producer.

FREE RANGE/FREE-ROAMING- USDA allows the use of this term on labels if the producer can demonstrate to the USDA that the poultry has been allowed access to the outside. HOWEVER, the length of time and the type of outdoor areas chickens are given access to are not legally defined. There isn’t even a regulatory system in place, so it’s likely that many free-range chickens are stuck in crowded indoor facilities for most of the day. There is no third party verification either. This is another label that I believe people take too literally… if you want eggs or chicken that were properly raised, your only option is organic!

GRASS-FED According to the USDA Grassfed definition, “100% of the diet of grass-fed animals consists of freshly grazed pasture during the growing season and stored grasses (hay or grass silage) during the winter months or drought conditions.” Unfortunately, the term does not indicate anything about the living conditions of the animals, it only refers to their diet. USDA certified Grassfed animals could have been raised in feedlots and given hormones. There is no third party auditing system for the USDA Grassfed labels.

AmericanGrassfedThe American Grassfed Association certification is legitimate though! AFA requires that grassfed animals be raised on pasture with a minimum of 75% forage cover, a 100% forage/grass diet, continuous access to pasture, and no confinement, antibiotics or hormones. AFA Grassfed is certified by a third party.

This is one claim that I was surprised by! I thought the use of “grassfed” was more reliable, so I was quite disappointed when I realized that I had been buying USDA grassfed meats. So next time you reach for that grassfed beef, check for an American Grassfed Association logo! (See information from The Paleo Mom about the benefits of grass-fed beef)

LOCALLY GROWN– There is no legal or regulated definition for “local” or “locally grown.” The idea is that “locally grown” refers to food grown, produced, processed and sold within a certain region. However, producers are at liberty to define and regulate their own use of the term, so there is no guarantee that “local” produce was even grown in your state. The term may also refer to the overall local food movement, which promotes more direct farm to consumer arrangements, but as I said, there is no regulated definition and no third party verification, so it is worth researching the company/producer before assuming the product was sustainably produced or came from a nearby town.

NATURAL- The USDA defines “Natural” as a product containing no added colors or artificial ingredients, and is minimally processed—the label must also explain the use of the term “natural” (e.g. no artificial ingredients). The USDA only regulates this term for meat and poultry, and it only refers to how the meat was processed after the animal was slaughtered (and not how the animal was raised). “Natural” meat could still contain antibiotics and hormones.

When the term is used on other products, there are absolutely no regulatory standards; therefore it’s essentially meaningless. The FDA does not object to the use of the term as long as the product doesn’t contain artificial flavors, colors or synthetic substances, but the product can still contain the likes of GMOs. The FDA has even deemed high fructose corn syrup “natural”! Essentially, “natural” assures you of very little. There’s (obviously) no third party verification. So recap: “Natural” doesn’t mean healthy, sustainable, or humanely raised. It’s probably the most deceptive food claim on the planet. Don’t fall for it.

ORGANIC, a.k.a. the holy grail of food certifications. Of all claims and certifications, “organic” has the most specific criteria and legal meaning. The USDA requires that organic producers have cultural, biological and mechanical practices up to USDA standards. Practices must promote environmental balance, and the use of synthetic pesticides, fertilizers, irradiation and genetically engineered crops is prohibited.

There are 3 levels of organic certification:

  1. 1. 100% organic: These foods are completely organic/made only with organic ingredients.
  2. 2. Organic: At least 95% of the ingredients in these food products must be organic, leaving the remaining 5% open to “allowable” substances at the USDA’s discretion.
  3. 3. Made with organic ingredients: At least 70% of ingredients in these food products are certified organic, but the USDA seal cant be used.

EuropeOrganicFor anyone in Europe, the E.U. and USDA standards are virtually the same except for regulations on the use of antibiotics: the USDA only allows use of antibiotics to control invasive bacterial infections in organic apple and pear orchards, and the E.U. allows it only to treat infected animals.

NonGMOProjectA note on GMOs: The USDA only requires labeling of genetically engineered foods if the new food contains an allergen the consumer wouldn’t expect to be present, if the food contains a toxicant above acceptable limits, or if the food’s nutritional properties have been significantly altered. Beyond this, there is no legal or regulated definition. Even though it is not required, many producers who oppose the use of GMOs voluntarily get certified by the Non-GMO Project. So look for the Non-GMO Project labels if you want to be sure that you aren’t consuming any genetically engineered ingredients.

Shopping Tip : When shopping for produce, you can look at the sticker numbers to determine how that item was grown.

5 digit number beginning with 9 = ORGANIC

4 digit number beginning with 3 or 4 = CONVENTIONALLY GROWN

5 digit number beginning with 8= GENETICALLY MODIFIED

However, these codes are inconsistently practiced, so they may not be reliable.

See the latest Dirty Dozen and Clean Fifteen lists to find out which fruits and vegetables you should be buying organic, and which conventionally grown produce is the safest to buy.

I hope you guys found this helpful! Now go out into the world as the knowledgeable shoppers you are now and make informed decisions!



Great Article! I wonder were organic beef fits in, because I want to start the AIP and most meats here are Conventional. Also, the only organ meat I can find isn’t even organic. Are these really low on the list, or off of it? Thankfully although there is no frozen or canned organic veg. here, there has been a recent increase in fresh ones!

Thank you, Christina! I did read the article, but didn’t catch the organ meats. Would Organic beef still be considered basically conventional, because I didn’t see it listed separately? I eat canned wild Alaskan salmon almost every day, but find almost eveything else in the top ten out of my budget. I guess this is what I’m wondering :would I still be Really on the AIP without grass-fed meats? That’s a hard one, but maybe Sarah’s book covers it. Hoping to get it within the next month!!!!

Yes, you can still reap the benefits even if you can’t afford grass-fed meats. You may simply want to avoid conventional chicken due to its high omega-6 content (or eat a lot more fish). – Christina, Sarah’s assistant

Wonderful, up the sea food…and perhaps the selenium. Thanks Christina! I was a little worried about heart health, but the omega 3s ought to be the ticket. I’ll lump the turkey in with the chicken, since I don’t love it anyway!

I think it’s amazing what you, Sarah and everyone else is doing here. The info may be elsewhere, but you guys have the science that makes it all come together!

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