Deciphering Product Labels

Liz McMann
Mississippi Market Natural Foods Co-op

Free Range? Cruelty Free? Natural? It’s tough to keep track of all the labels and claims on food and personal care products these days. Some labels require rigorous certifications, while others are completely meaningless!

One way to get around this issue is to get to know your farmers and food-producers personally through your local food co-op, farmer’s market, CSA or community garden. But when you can’t inspect the place yourself, here’s the info you need to know about labels:

“Natural”: This label has absolutely no legal meaning except for fresh meats. The USDA declares that “natural” meats must not have any artificial ingredients, such as colors or preservatives. It has no bearing on the production methods or standards of care for animals.

“Certified Organic”: This label requires certification by a USDA-accredited third party, verifying that the producer adheres to the National Organic Standards as written by the National Organic Standards Board. Producers are inspected annually and must keep meticulous records to document their entire supply chain and production methods. The term “organic” is not currently regulated for the personal products industry, so these products are not held to the same standards as foods. To learn more about organic standards, read the “Understanding Organics” article in this section.

“Free Range”: Though widely used, this label is only defined by the USDA for poultry products. The definition is vague, requiring only “access to outdoors” for an undefined time period each day. The best way to ensure your products are free range is to talk to your grocer or farmer to find out exactly how the animals were raised.

“Cruelty Free”: There is no official definition for this label, so it is not regulated in any way. Some companies may interpret it to mean that the final product is not tested on animals, while others may require that ingredients are also not tested.

“Grass Fed”: When this claim is accompanied by the USDA’s “Process verified” shield, it means that ruminant animals such as cattle and lambs were fed only 100% grass and forage (including legumes and cereal grains). Mother’s milk before weaning is also allowed. This claim is not verified for other animals or when not accompanied by the USDA’s seal.

“Fair Trade Certified”: Food products bearing this label are certified through TransFair USA. This means that the foods are produced by small scale growers who organize in cooperatives or unions and have direct trade relations with their buyers. The workers are ensured a fair price for their goods and use sustainable farming practices, including prohibiting several harmful pesticides.

Read Up

Eating Between the Lines: The Supermarket Shopper’s Guide to the Truth Behind Food Labels, Kimberly Lord Stewart. St. Martin’s Griffin, 2007.

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Mississippi Market Co-op
651-310-9499 or 651-690-0507
Saint Paul, MN

Deciphering Labels

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