How Do You Know What Food Labels Mean and Whether They’re Trustworthy?

published May 8, 2013
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(Image credit: Apartment Therapy)

It may come as a surprise to some, but buying foods labeled cage-free or grass-fed does not necessarily mean that those items are what they say they are, or what we assume they mean.  This can be really frustrating if you are trying to do your best to purchase humane and sustainable food, not to mention that foods labeled with these claims are often more expensive.  Do you pay extra for organic, or non-GMO, or hormone-free foods?  Do you know which labels are reliable?  Read on for more information and sources for identifying which labels you can trust. 

(Image credit: Apartment Therapy)

Last Sunday at San Francisco’s Ferry Plaza Farmers’ Market, CUESA (the organization which runs the market and its educational outreach) set up a display of the many labels we encounter in our farmers’ markets and grocery stores. The purpose was to educate people on the meaning of the terms and certifications and help them to make wise choices when spending their hard-earned food dollars. 

Since many of the terms used to market foods have no legal definition or regulation (such as pesticide-free), or are defined in a much broader way than we assume (such as free-range), it falls on the consumer to know and understand what they mean.  Additionally, while some labels are backed by certification, others are voluntary and have no verification process to support their claims.  This doesn’t necessarily mean that someone using this term is abusing it, but it is helpful to know just how reliable it is.

It does help if the labels say that they’re ‘certified’ which means that their claim (organic, biodynamic, non-GMO, Fairtrade, etc.) are backed up by an organization which has some accountability methods in place.  But often these certifications are expensive and not affordable to a smaller operation who may be practicing, say, organic farming but can’t claim so.  In other words, until the process is less expensive, certification is both a blessing and a curse.

CUESA says confusion over labeling is a good reason to shop at your local farmers’ market so you can ask the producers directly about their practices, but this can extend to supermarkets as well.  If you are unsure what a label means or if it has any legitimacy, ask you grocer and produce manager or use an app, such as the one listed below. 

3 Resources to Help You Evaluate Food Labels

(Images: Brie Mazurek for CUESA)