What Do the Labels Organic, All-Natural, Non-GMO and Fair-Trade Really Mean?

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When it comes to food and other products in your home, naturally you want what's healthiest for you and your family. Navigating grocery store aisles however, can be downright challenging. Bombarded with labels proclaiming "organic,” "all-natural," “gluten-free” and “non-GMO,” it can be difficult to discern what it is that you're actually buying. Read on to find out the real meanings behind eight food marketing claims that appear on food labels and determine which you actually want to be putting in your shopping cart.

1. What Does ‘Organic’ Really Mean?

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According to California Certified Organic Farmers (CCOF), the definition of organic is, food that is “produced without using harmful or toxic pesticides, sewage sludge or petroleum-based synthetic fertilizers, genetically modified organisms (GMOs), bioengineering, or ionizing radiation. Organic meat, poultry, eggs, and dairy products come from un-cloned animals that are given no antibiotics or growth hormones.” Registered dietitian Rene Ficek further elaborates: "Organic labels can be found on produce, dairy, meat, processed foods, condiments and beverages. Food products labeled “organic” must contain at least 95 percent organic ingredients. There is also “made with organic ingredients,” which is a label that can be put on products that contain at least 70 percent organic ingredients," Ficek says. Bottom line, if you’re interested in shopping for organic foods, look for the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) Organic symbol; it’s only carried on foods that are “100% organic” or “organic” (i.e. containing at least 95% organic foods).

Read more: 19 Foods to ALWAYS Buy Organic (Even if You’re on a Budget)

2. What Does ‘Gluten-Free’ Really Mean?

Home Made Gluten Free Breads
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The label and regulation surrounding “gluten-free” is important for anyone with celiac disease or intolerance to gluten. The good news is, the Food and Drug Administration recently released a final rule on the use of “gluten-free” as well as “without gluten,” “no gluten,” and “free of gluten,” – they’re all held to the same standard. One of the criteria under this rule is a gluten limit of less than 20 parts per million (ppm), which is the lowest level that can be detected in foods. In addition to meeting this standard, food products that may bear these labels must also not include any type of wheat, rye, barley, or crossbreeds of these grains. If an ingredient in the food was initially derived from one of these grains, it has to have been processed to remove the gluten and the amount remaining needs to be under that 20 ppm threshold.

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3. What Does ‘Non-GMO Project Verified’ Mean?


Today more than 70 percent of the packaged foods in North America contain genetically modified organisms (GMOs) and the top five crops contributing to this are corn, canola, soy, cotton and sugar beets. As people are learning about GMOs, some are making the decision to avoid them as much as possible and there is a Non-GMO Project Verified symbol for food packages that makes this decision easier. “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," registered dietitian Rene Ficek explains. "They verify that the process products go through -- from seed to shelf -- are produced according to their rigorous best practices for GMO avoidance," Ficek adds. Another option is to look for the USDA Organic symbol as the USDA’s National Organic Standards prohibit the use of GMOs.

Read more: 6 Reasons to Avoid GMOs

4. What Do ‘Free-Range’ and ‘Cage-Free’ Really Mean?

Five eggs in a bowl
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Also known as “free-roam” you’ll see these labels crop up when shopping for meat, poultry and eggs. Interestingly, the USDA only has regulations on “free-range” when it comes to poultry raised for meat; it means that the poultry animals had some access to the outdoors – although there is no standard for the amount of time or size of the outdoor area. When it comes to egg production, these labels can also be misleading because there are no standards. It typically means the hens are uncaged inside and have some access to the outdoors; however the same limitations exist regarding quality and quantity of outside access. Another potentially confusing label is cage-free. "One of the really annoying labels is the 'cage-free' claim for eggs,” says Deborah Niemann, author of Homegrown and Handmade. “Many consumers mistakenly think that means chickens are running around outside, but it does not. Cage-free simply means that the hens are not living in tiny cages, but they do still live inside buildings,” Niemann adds.

Read more: The Problem With "Cage Free" Eggs

5. What Does ‘Fair-Trade’ Really Mean?


Globally, the Fair Trade network certifies numerous food products including coffee, tea and herbs, cocoa, fresh fruit and vegetables, sugar, beans and grains, flowers, nuts, oils and butters, honey, spices and wine. A “Fair Trade Certified” label ensures that equitable trade practices are in place at every level of the supply chain from the farmers, to the workers, to the surrounding community for that product. Principles of the certification include fair prices, credit, labor conditions, community development and environment sustainability. “Workers must receive fair wages, safe and equitable working conditions and the right to join trade unions,” says Registered dietitian Rene Ficek. “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."

6. What Does ‘Grass-Fed’ Really Mean?


“Grass-fed” is a certification specific to meat and dairy products. "Grass-fed is a USDA standard that establishes parameters for grass-fed standard ruminant animals like cows and goats, which states that these animals must be fed only grass and forage during the growing season," registered dietitian Rene Ficek explains. The label however, does not extend to limit the use of hormones, pesticides or antibiotics. “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,” explains Ficek. “Other animals, like chicken and pigs, can be pasture-raised but there are currently no specific certification standards for non-ruminant animals being grass-fed or pastured.”

Read more: Tips to Choose the Healthiest Red Meat

7. What Does ‘All-Natural’ Really Mean?


Some green-seeming labels are nothing more than marketing. "While many products have “all-natural” labeling or packaging, there is no universal standard or definition for this claim," Ficek says. The FDA states: “From a food science perspective, it is difficult to define a food product that is 'natural' because the food has probably been processed and is no longer the product of the earth. That said, the FDA has not developed a definition for use of the term “natural” or its derivatives. However, the agency has not objected to the use of the term if the food does not contain added color, artificial flavors or synthetic substances.” Bottom line: this claim doesn’t hold any clout and may not be worth the extra spend in the store.

Read more: 11 Banned Food Ingredients Still Allowed in the U.S.

8. What Does ‘Green’ Really Mean?


Boston-based healthy-home expert Caroline Blazovsky says that the biggest point she tries to make with her clients when it comes to purchasing cleaning products is just because something says “green” on the label, it does not mean it is healthy. “It's extremely important to read the labels and understand what you are buying," she says. The term “green” can be overused and often misused, which can be confusing for anyone. The Environmental Working Group (EWG) has created a database with safety ratings for more than 2,000 household cleaning products so you can determine which products are safe to purchase for your home and which you should ditch.

Read more: 15 Unexpected Foods That Contain Gluten

The Label ‘Natural’ Doesn’t Necessarily Mean Safe!


"It is important to realize that seemingly harmless 'natural' scents like lavender, citrus and pine, all contribute to the number of VOCs (volatile organic compounds) in our home,” says Healthy home expert Caroline Blazovsky. “Just because something is ‘natural’ does not mean that it is necessarily healthy. Natural scents can cause indoor air quality problems as well."

Read more: 12 Dangerous Chemicals to Avoid in Everyday Products

What Do YOU Think?


Did you know all of this information about what the label phrases really mean? Was there any information that surprised you? Which labels do you look for at the store? Is there a label you feel should have been included on this list that we missed? Are there new labels you’ll be on the lookout for now? Leave a comment below and let us know.

Read more: 12 Health Trends That Are NOT Healthy!

Examples of Organic Food Products

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When it comes to food and other products in your home, naturally you want what's healthiest for you and your family. Navigating grocery store aisles however, can be downright challenging. Bombarded with labels proclaiming "organic,” "all-natural," “gluten-free” and “non-GMO,” it can be difficult to discern what it is that you're actually buying. Read on to find out the real meanings behind eight food marketing claims that appear on food labels and determine which you actually want to be putting in your shopping cart.


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