Which Food and Product Labels to Trust

I always thought of myself as a conscientious shopper but now I know I was far too trusting of what labels claim. I would see a word like “natural” on something, throw it in the cart, claim my victory for thoughtful consumerism and call it a day.

But unfortunately, just like what ingredients go IN most of the products we use, the words and claims that go ON these food and product labels are equally unregulated. 

“Natural” means literally nothing beyond “this product exists!” Pure, green, non-toxic, eco-friendly, free-range – all subject to interpretation and zero regulation. To add to the confusion, even the word “organic” holds no weight. It’s got to carry the USDA Organic seal which signifies over 95% of the product ingredients meet their set standards. It’s the seal that matters – NOT the words!  

Here are some legitimate certification labels to keep an eye out for:

  • USDA Organic – USDA certified food products are “grown and processed in accordance to federal guidelines including soil quality, animal raising practices, pest and weed control, and use of additives.  Produce can be called organic if it’s certified to have grown on soil that had no prohibited substances applied for three years prior to harvest. Prohibited substances include most synthetic fertilizers and pesticides. Organic meats are raised in living conditions accommodating their natural behaviors (like grazing), fed 100% organic feed, and not given antibiotics or hormones. Organically processed, multi-ingredient foods don’t contain artificial preservatives, colors, or flavors and require that their ingredients meet organic certification standards. When packaged products indicate they are “made with organic ingredients,” they contain at least 70% organically produced ingredients. Organic foods are also not grown or handled using GMOs”.
  • Safer Choice – EPA Safer Choice certification “reviews more than just product ingredients. They look at product performance, pH, packaging and more to ensure that products with the label are safer for you and your family and conduct annual audits to ensure the standards continue to be met. Before a product can carry the Safer Choice label, EPA reviews all chemical ingredients, regardless of their percentage in the product. Every ingredient must meet strict safety criteria for both human health and the environment, including carcinogenicity, reproductive/developmental toxicity, toxicity to aquatic life, and persistence in the environment.” 

  • Greenguard – GREENGUARD Certified products are “scientifically proven to meet some of the world’s most rigorous, third-party chemical emissions standards, helping to reduce indoor air pollution and the risk of chemical exposure, while aiding in the creation of healthier indoor environments.”

  • NSF – NSF certification is done by an independent organization that “tests, audits and certifies products and systems to comply with specific standards for safety, quality, sustainability or performance. Certifications provide the proof behind product claims like non-GMO and gluten-free, and assure bottled water and beverage quality.”

  • USDA Certified Biobased –  USDA certification which “assures a consumer that the product contains a verified amount of renewable biological ingredients (referred to as biobased content). Consumers can trust the label to mean what it says because manufacturer’s claims concerning the biobased content are third-party certified and strictly monitored by USDA. Biobased Products are derived from raw materials such as plants and other renewable agricultural, marine, and forestry materials. Biobased products generally provide an alternative to conventional petroleum derived products and include a diverse range of offerings such as lubricants, detergents, inks, fertilizers, and bioplastics.”

  • Green Seal –  Green Seal certification is a 30+ year old internationally recognized “process that ensures that a product or service meets rigorous performance, health, and environmental criteria. It allows manufacturers & providers to substantiate their environmental claims and helps purchasers identify products that are proven safer for human health and the environment.”

  • Epeat –  Electronic Product Environmental Assessment Tool (EPEAT) is a global ecolabel for the IT sector created by the US EPA. EPEAT “helps purchasers, manufacturers, resellers, and others buy and sell environmentally preferable electronic products.  EPEAT-registered products must meet environmental performance criteria that address: materials selection, supply chain greenhouse gas emissions reduction, design for circularity and product longevity, energy conservation, end-of-life management and corporate performance.”

  • Rainforest Alliance Certified – Independent, third-party auditor whose seal indicates that a “product or ingredient was produced using methods that support the three pillars of sustainability: social, economic, and environmental. Farmers are evaluated in all three areas before awarding or renewing certification. Standards include best practices for protecting forests, providing robust strategies for assessing and addressing child labor, forced labor, poor working conditions, low wages, gender inequality, and the violation of Indigenous land rights and improving sustainable livelihood opportunities through which their certification has proven to bring measurable financial benefits.”

  • Cradle to Cradle – Cradle to Cradle Certification is “a globally recognized measure of safer, more sustainable products made for the circular economy. To receive certification, products are assessed for environmental and social performance across five critical sustainability categories: material health, material reuse, renewable energy and carbon management, water stewardship, and social fairness. A product is assigned an achievement level (Basic, Bronze, Silver, Gold, Platinum) for each category. The standard encourages continuous improvement over time by awarding certification on the basis of ascending levels of achievement and requiring certification renewal every two years.” 

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