Sustainable Food Labels: What They Mean — and What They Don't
As we all take steps to buy more sustainable food, it's easy to get confused by the panoply of popular sustainability jargon. For example, did you know that organic means non-GMO? How about that the word "natural" is legally meaningless? Or that those cute little chickens on your cage-free eggs might be spending their whole lives in dark, concrete barns?
Don't worry: we've got you covered. Here's what different sustainability words and terms mean. (Hint: sometimes, it's nothing at all.)
If You Want Something "Natural"
The word natural is legally meaningless when it appears on-package. (So, for that matter, are all-natural, whole, and even sustainable.) If you want something "natural," you're going to have to delve a little bit deeper into what you mean.
For many, looking for "natural" foods means avoiding ingredients like high-fructose corn syrup; to do this, it's as easy as simply flipping over the package and checking the ingredients list.
But some want to avoid GMOs, as well. To fulfill this mission, keep an eye out for one of two labels: Non-GMO Project Verified or USDA Certified Organic. (Yes, all organics are also non-GMO. No, the opposite is not true.)
But we can also delve a little bit deeper into this desire by asking, "What exactly is a GMO and why do you want to avoid it?"
GMOs, or genetically modified organisms, are plants or animals that have had their genomes modified for a variety of reasons. There's nothing exactly wrong with the technology itself — the worry lies in how it's used.
The most common GMOs in the U.S. are soy, corn, canola, and cotton, all of which are often genetically engineered to be resistant to glyphosate. This herbicide, often sold under the Monsanto Roundup brand, was deemed a probable human carcinogen by the World Health Organization (WHO) in 2015. It is used not only on genetically modified crops but also to treat non-GMO oats after harvest.
GMOs have also recently been used to develop genetically modified animals, like salmon that grow at twice the rate of wild salmon. This product, marketed by AquaBounty, does not need to be labeled as GMO for sale.
To avoid genetically modified products, then, seek out the butterfly logo of the Non-GMO Project label or the USDA organic symbol.
If You Want to Avoid Herbicides and Pesticides
A primary threshold for avoiding herbicides and pesticides is the Non-GMO Project Verified label, but as these chemicals can be used on non-GMO foods, like oats, if this is your primary concern, USDA Certified Organic is your best bet. The organic label does not allow the use of any synthetic pesticides or herbicides, and while contamination does happen, by and large, you'll be avoiding these chemicals when buying organic.
If You Want to Promote Soil Health
Ingesting pesticides is not the only thing you need to worry about when it comes to the use of these chemicals. Pesticides are often far more dangerous to the environment and local soil health than they are to individuals, and while the organic label was originally founded with the idea of improving soil health, widespread organic monocultures often do the exact opposite.
While some biodiverse farms have a Regenerative Organic Certified label, many do not. Unfortunately, there isn't a good shortcut for this one: in the case of soil health, often, buying from small, local producers who encourage biodiversity is the best way of remaining true to the ideals of organic, as well as the rules.
If You Want to Promote Animal Welfare
When it comes to meat, eggs, and dairy, things grow ever more complicated. From cage-free to free-range, grass-fed to vegetarian, it seems that meat and, particularly, egg labels have tons of indications that the animals that participated in the creation of a product you're buying were happy as can be.
Unfortunately, many of these terms (not to mention images of frolicking chickens) can be misleading and are not regulated. If animal welfare is important, here's what you should look for.
Whereas USDA Certified Organic is, in many ways, the gold standard for crops, it's not quite as meaningful when it comes to animal welfare. Organic meat has minimum standards for pasturing and requires that all feed be certified organic and non-GMO, but if animal welfare is really what you're looking for, there are far better labels.
Animal Welfare Approved by A Greener World is the gold standard in welfare labels. The only USDA-approved third-party animal welfare food certification label, this certificate supports family farmers who pasture their animals and transport and slaughter humanely.
Other humane standards to swear by include Global Animal Partnership (Steps 4, 5, and 6), which prohibits feedlots and requires access to pasture for all animas. Standards also cover physical alterations and the treatment of animals during transport and slaughter.
There are also a few meaningless label terms out there. These include cage-free for meat, as birds in the U.S. are not caged before slaughter.
Cage-free for eggs is meaningful; though as of 2015, most birds in the U.S. are not raised in battery cages. And it bears mentioning that while cage-free evokes pasture-raised, many cage-free egg-laying hens are actually raised in indoor barns with small outdoor porches where animals cannot scratch or actually walk around pasture. Instead, seek out Certified Humane Pasture-Raised Eggs, the gold standard of humane standards for egg-laying hens.
Other meaningless labels for animal welfare include: Ethically Raised, Responsibly Raised, Thoughtfully Raised, Humanely Raised, No Added Hormones, Omega-3 Enriched, and Vegetarian Fed.
Basically, if the package is telling you something without certifying it, you can't believe it. And in some cases, you can't believe it even if it's certified. United Egg Producers Certified is one such meaningless label, developed by and for the egg industry. This is not a third-party or independent label and allows hens to be crowded into small, dark areas for their entire lives.
If You Want Eco-Conscious Meat
When it comes to meat, animal welfare is one thing; the environment is another. While humane standards are often more sustainable than factory farming, the Venn diagram of these two concerns is not always a perfect circle.
First off, it's important to consider the fact that you can make more eco-conscious choices without looking at the label at all, just by choosing a plant-based diet. Livestock on the whole contributes about 14.5 percent of greenhouse gas emissions globally, and of that, two thirds are produced by cattle. Choosing poultry, pork, or even lamb is a good start.
When nothing but beef will do, however, choosing grass-fed beef is best, despite recent arguments to the contrary. Feedlot beef technically produce fewer methane emissions than grass-fed, as animals reach adult size more quickly and can thus be brought to market sooner than grass-fed cattle. But producing the forage for grain-fed animals requires a lot of energy, fertilizer, and irrigation, whereas grass-fed beef, when properly pasture rotated, can encourage the capture of carbon within the soil.
That said, since much grass-fed beef is actually grain finished, it's important to look past a simple on-label grass-fed indication. Seek out beef and dairy certified by the American Grassfed Association or A Greener World, and you'll be off to a great start.