What’s in a label? Decoding food claims, from natural to non-GMO


Transparency. It’s the new buzzword among consumers demanding to know what’s in their food and brands showing off their ever-shortening lists of ingredients. Packages are dotted with more stamps and badges than ever, but that doesn’t mean the average shopper truly gets a clear idea of how their food was made. 

“A stamp on your package doesn’t tell the whole story,” says Tracy Singleton, owner of Birchwood Cafe in Minneapolis and a board member of Right to Know MN, a campaign dedicated to passing genetically modified food (GMO) labeling laws in Minnesota. Organizations like Right to Know MN are watching closely as Vermont becomes the first state to require labels for GMOs. They hope it will set a precedent that other states can adopt, eventually pushing the government to be a better watchdog in the food industry.

This legislation would save business owners like Singleton time and money. “I have to pay to tell my customers that my food doesn’t contain something that they don’t want,” she says, explaining the pricey process of certifying her granola bars as GMO-free. “It puts the burden on small businesses.”


Not everyone is eager for GMO-labeling to become the national standard. Some, like Julie Kelly of the Genetic Literacy Project, worry that it will cause unnecessary fear of biotechnology. As Kelly argued in The Wall Street Journal, “As science advances and consumers become more informed about genetic engineering’s benefits for human health, animal welfare, and food safety, the anti-GMO movement will look ever more like an outdated ideological crusade.”

But Heather Flesland, a campaign director at Right to Know MN, points out that not all people who want GMO labeling are against GMOs. “I represent people who don’t see a problem [with GMOs], they just want the right to know they’re there,” she says.

Until then, it’s up to average shoppers to decipher the many badges dotting their food products. Some represent government-regulated standards, others represent third-party verification, and others are simply unregulated, unverified marketing terms.

Here’s a guide to help you understand the most common labels.

USDA Organic

USDA Organic label

This government-regulated label is one of the most controlled terms in food. It indicates that a farm or business is inspected annually by USDA-approved independent organizations, and that its products do not contain GMOs, artificial preservatives, colors, flavors, synthetic fertilizers or pesticides.

USDA Organic-certified products must also be produced per the National List of Allowed and Prohibited Substances (the “National List”) and overseen by a USDA National Organic Program-authorized certifying agent.

If a food producer is not certified as USDA Organic, they are not allowed to make any organic claim or use the USDA organic seal. They can, however, identify USDA-certified organic ingredients on the ingredient panel.

Meat labeled USDA Organic must come from animals that have been raised with access to the outdoors, fed a 100% organic diet, and have not been administered antibiotics or hormones.

(Note: organic labels on seafood don’t mean much, because the USDA doesn’t have organic standards for seafood yet.)

Levels of the USDA Organic certification are broken down in three ways:

1. 100% Organic: All ingredients must be certified organic and all processing aids must be organic.

2. Organic: Products must contains no less than 95% certified organic ingredients (excluding salt and water), with the remaining 5% of ingredients being organically produced unless commercially unavailable.

3. Made With Organic Ingredients: At least 70% of the product must be certified organic ingredients (excluding salt and water). Any remaining agricultural products are not required to be organically produced, but must be produced without excluded methods mentioned on the National List. Non-agricultural products must be specifically allowed on the National List.


This label is unregulated and, ultimately, relative. To some it means fresh and grown in your immediate county, while to others it could mean pickled or frozen food from your general region. Best to hit up your area farmers’ markets if you want to know you’re shopping local.

Non-GMO Project Verified

NON-GMO label

The orange butterfly means that a food has been verified by the Non-GMO Project, a third-party verification organization started by retailers. Reflecting the European Union’s GMO-labeling standard, the Non-GMO Project uses an action threshold of “0.9%.” That means if a product is made with more than 0.9% GMO ingredients, it’s out. Products bearing this seal have to go through an annual audit in order to stay verified.

Fair Trade Certified


This label is all about ethics. Fair Trade certification makes sure farmers are receiving a fair price for their goods and that workers receive sustainable wages and work in safe conditions. It also certifies that businesses promote direct trade (as opposed to using middlemen), community development, and sustainability.

Next page: Natural, Grass Fed, Certified Humane, & more

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