When Organic Isn’t Good Enough: Food Labels, Beyond Organic

Helpful tips to decode your "natural" food and supplement labels

It’s a problem more and more of us are beginning to face: You walk into your local natural food store, and find yourself disappointed with the selection. Frustrated with offerings nearby, I started driving a bit further to a very expensive natural food chain. I was so excited walking in, imagining my grocery cart piled with new and exciting organic foods. The problem is, most of their selection was not even organic! In fact, a large portion of it wasn’t even truly natural, especially in the personal care and supplements section. I noticed additives I have long since banned in my house — polysorbate 80, PEG, carrageenan, etc.

You want to know what I found a lot of, though? Organic junk food. Chips, crackers, cakes, candies, chocolates… the organic selection in these categories was endless! But as we well know, just slapping the word “organic” on something doesn’t make it healthy. What I really wanted was a wide selection of beautiful, local, organic produce. I wanted to find grass-fed meat, free-range chickens that actually spent time outdoors, sustainable seafood. And, of course, I wanted it all to be affordable. Keep dreaming!

Why not settle for whatever the natural grocery store offered? Because it’s not good enough. I don’t want to feed my family food that met some kind of minimal standard. I want to buy food that supports the local economy and local farmers. I want to eat whole foods that aren’t processed and stripped of all their nutrients and cofactors. I want supplements made from whole foods, not something chemically isolated in a lab. So I thought I’d spend some time examining some of the labels we find on foods and supplements, to create a quick guide to food labels that goes a bit beyond just “Organic.”

Food Labels and What They Really Mean

What the label says: Organic

What it means: “Certified Organic” means that the product met some basic standards: no chemical fertilizers and pesticides, no antibiotics and growth hormones, no GMOs. “Organic” is great, but it’s not synonymous with “healthy.” It doesn’t mean that the animals were treated humanely, or that they fed on verdant pastures, or that the farm workers were paid a fair wage. USDA Certified animal products, however, must be from animals that at least had access to the outdoors.

What the label says: Non-GMO

What it means: If a product is labeled GMO-Free or Non-GMO, it cannot contain any genetically modified ingredients. This is especially important when it comes to foods that are frequently genetically modified, such as corn, soy, and sugar. Some foods have not yet been genetically modified — wheat, for example, as well as the majority of produce — so the Non-GMO label on these foods would be insignificant. For more information on GMOs, check out the Non-GMO Project.

What the label says: Fair Trade Certified

What it means: The “Fair Trade” label means that workers were paid a fair wage for their work, and that working conditions were safe. To become Fair Trade Certified, a farm may not use child labor. They must also abide by international environmental standards.

What the label says: Cage Free

What it means: This just means that the animals (usually chickens) were not kept in cages. It does not mean that they were treated well, or that they had access to the outdoors.

What the label says: Free Range

What it means: The label “free range” generally means that the animals had access to the outdoors for at least half their lives. This could mean that they spent hours outdoors every day, or simply that there was a small door leading to the outdoors that the animals never dared to pass through. Free range doesn’t mean that the animals actually spent time outside, and just 5 minutes of outdoor time is considered sufficient according to USDA standards.

What the label says: Pasture-Raised

What it means: Pasture raised meat or dairy products are derived from animals that are free to roam and feed on pastures. However, they may be fed grain in the winter. Pasture-raised products are considered more humane. This is not a regulated label, so do your research before trusting the company.

What the label says: Grass Fed

What it means: The Grass Fed label might seem similar to Pastured, but there is a subtle yet important difference. Products labeled “100% Grass Fed” are from animals that only ate grass or dry hay; no grain was used to supplement their diet. Just “Grass Fed” (without the “100%” on the label) often means that the animal was grain-finished — fed grain on a feedlot for the last few months of its life. Technically, a grass-fed cow could spend its entire life indoors and be fed only hay, but most products labeled “Grass Fed” are likely also “Pastured.” The label generally implies that the animal spent lots of time outdoors. Note: You wouldn’t see “grass fed chicken” or “grass fed pork,” as these animals require some grain in their diet for good health.

What the label says: Certified Humane

What it means: Certified Humane foods must adhere to strict standards for how the animals can be kept and raised. They need to be fed well, treated kindly without unnecessary stress, and given opportunities to enjoy life. Certified Humane animals cannot be given hormones or antibiotics (unless the animal is ill and requires antibiotics).

What the label says: Whole Food

What it means: Whole Food means exactly what it sounds like — that the product was made from whole food ingredients, nothing isolated, processed, stripped of nutrients, or synthetic. Foods and supplements that are not made from whole foods are often missing the naturally-occurring cofactors needed for nutrient absorption and other critical components for complete nutrition. Whole foods are the foods nature provides, in the form our bodies recognize: the foods we are meant to be eating. Whole food supplements are generally made up of actual real foods that have been gently dried and powdered to create an easy-to-take capsule or smoothie powder; all the delicate nutrients and cofactors are preserved. You can read more about whole food vs. synthetic vitamins in Decoding Your Multivitamin.

What the label says: Natural

What it means: These days, the label “natural” means virtually nothing. The label is not regulated, so anyone can use it. This also goes for other catchy terms or packaging tricks. Products labeled “Simply,” “Green,” etc. or packaged in natural shades of green and brown are being marketed to us as something healthy, organic, or natural, but in reality they aren’t necessarily any different than their counterparts. This is why it’s so important to read the ingredients label.

What the label says: rBGH Free or rBST Free

What it means: These are labels often found on dairy products; rBGH is recombinant Bovine Growth Hormone (rBST refers to the scientific name, recombinant Bovine Somatotropin). This is a genetically engineered hormone given to cows to force them to produce more milk. Products labeled rBGH/rBST-Free are from cows that were not given rBGH, but this does not necessarily mean they are free of all hormones or antibiotics.

What the label says: Hormone Free

What it means: Foods or supplements labeled “Hormone Free” are from animals who were never given any hormones during their lifespan. However, there is no organization that oversees this label, so you’ll have to take the manufacturer at their word. You’ll probably want to research the manufacturer rather than blindly trusting them. Certain products, such as chicken, are not allowed to use hormones anyway, so the Hormone Free label in this case would be pretty meaningless.

Want to know more about food labels? This Eco-Labels database breaks it all down in detail.

What I look for in a healthy food or supplement:

  • Whole foods or supplements made from whole foods
  • Organic certified
  • For animal products, meat, and dairy: Grass-fed/pastured, preferably local
  • For produce: Local if possible
  • For premade products: Only the ingredients I’d find in my own kitchen: no additives, preservatives, added sugar, unhealthy oils, etc.
  • For imported foods (chocolate, coffee, etc.): Fair Trade

Are you disappointed in your natural food store’s offerings? What are your most important criteria when buying foods and supplements?


By Ali Wetherbee

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