What Do Food Labels Mean?

by FoodPrint


The grocery aisles are chock full of food labels and claims, calling out everything from “natural” to “organic.” It can be hard to figure out which labels matter and which are meaningless marketing claims.

Some food labels are certifications. This means they meet certain standards and have been verified by a third-party certifier. Other labels are merely claims without any system of knowing if what they say is true or meaningful.

The FoodPrint Label Guide

A great example is the word “natural.” What does it mean? And who decides? Unfortunately, there are few regulations in place for the term “natural,” and how it’s used gets pretty murky. The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) is only loosely paying attention to what foods have it on their label.

But there are trustworthy labels out there that can help you find food that aligns with your values. They guarantee that the food was produced in a way that can help you lower your “foodprint” — i.e. without pesticides, say, or genetically engineered ingredients. So whether you are concerned about animal welfare, environmental sustainability or fair wages for workers (or all three!), there are labels to help.

The FoodPrint Label Guide is here to help you decipher everything you see on your food. Here are the different categories:

Egg Labels

Egg cartons are notorious for showing pictures of happy hens pecking through grassy fields, but the reality of most egg laying operations is a far cry from this image. Most laying hens are raised in what are called “factory farms,” huge operations with thousands of birds in cages, or crammed in together on the floor. You have probably been trained to look for eggs that are “free-range” or “cage-free,” but even that is, well, complicated.

If you want to buy eggs from hens who were allowed to roam freely and forage, then look for pasture raised eggs. Eggs from hens raised on pasture are better for you, better for the environment and better for hens. You can read more about it in our FoodPrint of Eggs report.

The trick is finding eggs that are truly pasture raised, since it’s legally acceptable to put that claim on an egg carton without it being wholly true. Look for certifications like Animal Welfare Approved, and Whole Foods’ Global Animal Partnership Steps 4, 5 and 5+, which let you know that a third party certifier has guaranteed these conditions.

There is no one label that comprehensively addresses whether hens were raised entirely on pasture, treated with high animal welfare standards, fed high-quality feed, and handled by workers who are fairly treated and compensated. As a result, you just have to decide which factors are most important to you and then seek out the appropriate label, where available.


Milk Labels

Even though overall milk sales have declined in recent years, organic milk sales are going strong. This lets us know: people care about what’s in their glass/coffee cup/cereal bowl, and maybe even how it got there.

Ever heard of a “megadairy?” It’s a giant factory farm with 1,000 cows or more. Megadairies are terrible for the animals, catastrophically bad for the environment and usually terrible for workers. You can read more about them in our FoodPrint of Dairy report.

Mostly what you see at the store is the option to buy United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) Organic. But increasingly, you’ll also see the Grassfed option. Organic milk is from cows that cannot be given growth hormones or antibiotics and who are fed all certified organic feed. In addition, they cannot be continuously confined. Grassfed cows, who are on pasture when weather allows — and fed hay in a barn when it doesn’t — are the healthiest, and these farms are much better for the animals, the environment, the farmers and the community.

The grassfed claim doesn’t have much regulation, unfortunately. But as with “pasture-raised,” there are labels with certifications that guarantee the animals were 100 percent grassfed and you should look for them. For milk that comes from cows eating nothing but grass (including hay in the winter), look for labels that say “100 percent grassfed,” Organic Valley’s Grassmilk or the Certified Grass-Fed Organic seal and certification, launched by Organic Valley and Maple Hill in early 2019.


Fruit and Vegetable Labels

When you’re shopping for everything from apples to lettuce, you have likely seen or looked for the USDA Organic label. Maybe you’re concerned about pesticides and your family’s health or maybe you care about how farming with pesticides is affecting our environment.

The organic label lets you know that few to no pesticides were used. And that means few to no pesticides seeped into the soil, killing the soil’s vitality and biodiversity. Or ran off into nearby waterways, or contributed to the evolution of superweeds that make farming even more challenging.

When it comes to ingesting food grown with pesticides, there is a lot that is not yet known. Technically, the amount of pesticide residues on (and in, in some cases) non-organic food is generally regarded as safe by the FDA. But some health experts are still concerned that not enough studies have been done on the effects of being exposed multiple times throughout one’s life to a cocktail of pesticides from various foods. In addition, there is the matter of farmer and farmworker health, since many studies have conclusively linked prolonged direct contact with certain pesticides to various medical problems, including cancer.

You can read more about it in our FoodPrint of Crops report.

But purchasing organic fruits and vegetables is not just a way to keep pesticides out of your own body: it’s a way to support a food system that does not put farm workers at risk; that relies less on genetically modified organisms; and that is better for the environment.

And, of course, pesticides are not the only issues at play when it comes to fruits and vegetables. Our Produce Label Guide breaks it all down for you, including many important labor/farmworker certifications and labels.


Meat Labels

The good news is, you have more and more choices when it comes to the meat you buy. Whether it’s certified grassfed burgers, pasture-raised pork chops, antibiotic-free chicken thighs, or Certified Humane bacon, there are lots of labels to decipher and lots of products to choose from.

When it comes to raising animals, many people are concerned with how the animals were treated, and with good reason. The pastures and red barns we picture are a far cry from industrialized farms today. These facilities are “factory farms,” or CAFOs (concentrated animal feeding operations), which house animals in vast quantities in cramped, inhumane conditions.

Our label guide can help direct you to certified animal welfare labels, sorting out the ones with integrity from those without much meaning. We even go through various inhumane practices — like dehorning or tail docking —and let you know if each label allows them or not.

And beyond animal welfare, we have information about things like what the USDA organic label means when it comes to animal products, and what the hullabaloo is over antibiotic-free meat.

Curious about a label and want us to investigate? Tweet to us at @foodprintorg or email us a info@foodprint.org

More Reading

What You Need to Know About Wild and Farmed Shrimp

November 12, 2019

The True Cost of a Free Thanksgiving Turkey

October 11, 2019

How the Right to Farm Became the Right to Harm

August 5, 2019

What Do Tuna Can Labels Tell You About Sustainability?

July 24, 2019

Making Sense of Dairy Labels

July 18, 2019

Ag-Gag Laws Help Hide Animal Abuse on Factory Farms

May 2, 2019

Rancher Dan Gibson on Eating Less Meat (But Better Meat)

October 26, 2018

Why Slaughterhouse “Line Speeds” Matter

October 22, 2018

What is a FoodPrint and Why Should I Care about Mine?

October 18, 2018