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Decoding “Green” Food Labels

July 23, 2012

I’ve done quite a lot of reading lately on food labels, such as organic or free range, and I thought this information would be valuable to share.  Many of these labels do not really mean what they seem to intuitively mean and as a concerned mother on a limited budget, it is really important to know what is worth paying extra money for and what is not.  I always try to feed my children the best food I can afford, but what can be really frustrating is spending  extra money for a label that turns out to be meaningless.  So, to provide some clarification based on my research:

Certified Organic: 95% or more organic, not including water or salt and certified by the USDA.

Made with Organic Ingredients: 70% or more organic, also USDA certified.

Natural: Product contains no artificial flavors, colors, or preservatives.  However, it can still be highly processed, and it does not have to have been grown organically.  FDA regulated.

Naturally raised: Animals were not given antibiotics or fed animal by-products, etc.  However, they could have been raised in cramped cages, warehouses, etc. on large mass-agricultural farms.  Nothing in this label ensures any type of humane or organic farming practice.

GMO Free: Product has not been knowingly genetically modified.  This is unregulated but is instead a voluntary labeling.  Additionally, cross pollination could still contaminate products.

Fair Trade: Product was produced in a “socially responsible way” as determined by the Fairtrade Labelling Organizations International.  Products are certified by TransFair USA.

Cage Free: Egg-laying hens are not kept in cages.  However, they could still be crowded inside barns with their wings, feet and beaks clipped, and no one certifies this label.

Free Range: The bird (only applies to poultry meat) had “access” at least once a day to the outdoors for an unspecified period of time.  This could have been minutes, and they don’t have to have actually gone outside.  The USDA certifies this label.

Certified Humane Raised and Handled:  Meets the standards set by Humane Farm Animal Care, and is certified by inspectors.

Hormone Free: Animals were not injected with hormones, certified by the USDA.  Again, this says nothing as to how the animals were raised or handled beyond that they were not given rBST, rBGH or Prosilac.

Free range, free roaming or pasture raised (beef, lamb or pork): Unregulated label, so meaning could vary drastically.

Grass-Fed Beef: 99% of animal’s food source is forage from pasture or harvested grass.

This is a sampling of the most common labels, and does not even begin to address all the labels for cleaners or other household products.  Unfortunately, our current food labeling process essentially forces everyone to become an expert or risk ingesting chemicals they do not want or eating food raised in conditions they do not support.  Uniform, inspected and certified labeling is needed to change this.

For more information, check out the following:

Loux, Renee, 2008.  Easy Green Living.  Rodale.

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