Explained: Why Does My Food Have so Many Labels?
Updated: Dec 1, 2021
You've probably noticed more & more labels cropping up on your store-bought food products lately, & may question what some of them actually mean. Well, I am here to help! Having worked in natural foods for over 3 years, I've gotten quite familiar with food labels & noticed that the majority of people have no idea what most labels mean. Explaining labels to folks just comes naturally to me now, & if I see something I am unfamiliar with, I look it up! Research is not that hard folks, we've got Google now, it's just about critical thinking & finding the correct, true sources.
Here they are for you, labels explained!* Please feel free to comment or reach out with further questions.
First off, let's get one thing straight, the term All Natural or Natural being slapped across a product does not mean a single thing. They are simply using this technique to trick your mind into thinking their product is "healthy" so you purchase it. No regulation goes into the Natural statement.
A product stating that they are "Organic" or "Made with Organic_____" must contain at least 70% organic ingredients. These products are allowed to include Natural Flavors, which could be harmless or filled with chemical additives. According to the Code of Federal Regulations, Natural Flavor could refer to a manufactured flavor "derived from a spice, fruit or fruit juice, vegetable or vegetable juice, edible yeast, herb, bark, bud, root, leaf or similar plant material, meat, fish, poultry, eggs, dairy products, or fermentation products thereof." All & all, we're rarely going to be certain what an individual product's Natural Flavors really are. Personally, I try to avoid them altogether, unless I really trust the product & know that their natural flavorings are simply concentrated essential oils from plants to boost the flavor of a food product. Decide for yourself!
If you see the USDA Organic label on your food then it will contain 95% organic ingredients. These products are allowed to include Natural Flavors as well. Read your ingredients list!
These products will contain 100% organic ingredients, excluding salt & water.**
You may have seen various Fair Trade labels on your products, & they do vary slightly, but at the end of the day, they are pretty similar & have the same basis. Fair Trade ensures fair trading practices between companies & communities harvesting these materials (cocoa, coffee, tea, cotton, fruit, etc.) that are later used for production. Safe working conditions & product quality are ensured. Money is funneled back into these communities through premiums, higher wages, & typically programs that the company will set up as well. As an example, when I worked with Honest Tea, they built a school, built wells, provided glasses & bicycles to communities, the list goes on! As I mentioned before, there are varying Fair Trade labels, so here are the most common further explained.***
Fair Trade International Mission: To connect disadvantaged producers and consumers, promote fairer trading conditions and empower producers to combat poverty, strengthen their position and take more control over their lives.
Fair Trade USA Mission: To enable sustainable development and community empowerment by cultivating a more equitable global trade model that benefits farmers, workers, consumers, industry and the earth.
Fair for Life Mission: To ensure fair and positive relations between producers and their cooperatives or contracting companies, between workers and their employer, between sellers and buyers on the world market while at the same time ensuring performance of standards. With Fair for Life, entire companies & the whole production line can be certified Fair Trade, not just the raw materials (cocoa, tea, etc.), which is the case with the prior certifications.
The Rainforest Alliance seal is similar to the Fair Trade label with more of an emphasis on environmental conservation. If you checkout the Rainforest Alliance website you will see that their seal means "that the product (or a specified ingredient) was produced by farmers, foresters, and/or companies that are working together to create a world where people thrive in nature & harmony."
The 1% for the Planet label is displayed on products that opt-in to donate 1% of their yearly proceeds to environmental non-profit organizations such as Protect our Winters (POW), Plastic Oceans, National Forest Foundation, & many others.
A genetically modified organism, or GMO, is a plant, animal, or organism which has been modified in a lab, altering its genetic code. The Non-GMO label verifies that the genetic make-up of the foods carrying that label will not be tampered with or edited. Non-GMO foods can still contain harmful pesticides, so please be weary!
These are just a few labels that I think are the most important to be aware of when consuming your food consciously. Of course, many other labels exist - always be aware of allergen labels if you suffer from any food allergies. Be well!
*Providing you with a brief, colloquial explanation of each label & links to do further research if it calls to you! Note that there are many more food labels, these are just the ones I see & get asked about most commonly.
**On a side note, when it comes to buying organic, I like to refer to the EWG's Dirty Dozen & Clean 15 lists. Check it out for yourself & use this guide when sourcing your fruits & veggies!
***Fair Trade Membership Groups like World Fair Trade Organization & Fair Trade Federation exist too!
Fair Trade Winds. (Farmaid. (2020, October 13). Food Labels Explained. Farmaid. https://www.farmaid.org/food-labels-explained/
McEvoy, M. (2019, March 13). Organic 101: What the USDA Organic Label Means. U.S. Department of Agriculture. https://www.usda.gov/media/blog/2012/03/22/organic-101-what-usda-organic-label-means
Spritzler, F. (2016, December 16). Natural Flavors: Should You Eat Them? Healthline. https://www.healthline.com/nutrition/natural-flavors#TOC_TITLE_HDR_2
The Non-GMO Project. (2020, October 13). The Non-GMO Project Standard. The Non-GMO Project. Retrieved from https://www.nongmoproject.org/wp-content/uploads/Non-GMO-Project-Standard-Version-15.pdf
USDA Agricultural Marketing Service. (2020, October 13). Organic Labeling Standards. U.S. Department of Agriculture. Retrieved from https://www.ams.usda.gov/grades-standards/organic-labeling-standards
U.S. Food & Drug Administration. (2019, April 1). CFR Code of Federal Regulations Title 21. U.S. Department of Health & Human Services. https://www.accessdata.fda.gov/scripts/cdrh/cfdocs/cfcfr/cfrsearch.cfm?fr=101.22