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Label Reading 101: How To Make Sense of Organic/Natural/Free-Range/nonGMO and other Food Labels

Not all food labels are created equal. Understanding which ones are what they pretend to be is an important step in getting value from a family’s food dollars. It’s worth it to spend more for food that is free of pesticides, artificial growth  hormones, and genetically-modified contents. It’s not so nice to spend money on something  just pretending to be more natural.

Certified Organic is the most trust-worthy and meaning

ful food label of those below. For animals products it is often worth-it to go beyond organic to also get products that are pasture-raised and/or grassfed.

Organic/Biologique Labels

To be able to use the word organic on a food label in Canada or the U.S., the product must have at least 70 percent organic ingredients and be free of GMOs and the worst of the food additives. A Certified Organic product contains at least 95 percent organic ingredients, and has an official USDA or Canada Organic/ Biologique label. These products are grown without chemical herbicides, pesticides, fungicides, fertilizers, sewage sludge, or GMOs. Animals raised organically have access to pasture, eat organic feed that contains no antibiotics, and do not receive synthetic growth hormones. Organic products cannot be irradiated or have syn- thetic additives. The USDA Organic label can also be used on personal care prod- ucts that meet the organic food standard for their products, meaning they are not only organic but made of edible ingredients. Canada does not have a similar option.
Canada’s organic label has come under criticism recently because, unlike in the United States, Canada does not require field tests and it outsources certification in countries such as China that have questionable environmental standards. Nonetheless, the Certified Organic label for food is still the best assurance of quality.


nonGMO or GMO-Free Labels

GMOs — or genetically modified organisms — aka GM or GE (genetically engi- neered) refer to plants or animals created through the changing or merging of a species’ DNA. Canada allows GM varieties of corn, soy, sugar beets, canola, apples, and salmon. It’s the fourth largest producer of GM crops, well behind the U.S. and Brazil. We also import GM cottonseed oil, papaya, and squash. rGBH tainted milk products come from the U.S. in processed foods that contain milk solids or powders such as frozen desserts or mixed drinks with dairy. In the 20 years since GM ingredients were first introduced into Canada, these foods have made their way into most of the processed foods available in Canada. Unless you buy foods labelled organic or NON-GMO, you are almost certainly getting them in packaged foods that contain corn, canola, soy, or sugar.

Unless the GMO-free claim is backed up with the NON-GMO Project label or, even better, one of the Certified Organic labels mentioned above, it’s a meaningless claim. It should be noted that the NON-GMO label does not mean that a product is organic. Indeed, having a NON-GMO label on something like strawberries is meaningless as strawberries are not currently being genetically modified anywhere, yet they are a pesticide-intensive crop. You are far better-off spending the money on the organic strawberries or skipping over all the conventional strawberries, including the NON-GMO ones.

Cage-Free, Free-Range, Grass-Fed, Hormone-Free, Antibiotic-Free, Natural, or All-Natural Labels

These terms can be used without the independent verification that a third party provides. This makes them meaningless. Add to the list “No Antibiotics Used” or “No additional hormones added.” When I see one of these terms without a third-party certification, I assume the company is greenwashing. To really get what it says look for the certifications below:

Meat/Poultry Labels

The Animal Welfare Approved (AWA) label certifies small, independent farms that give their animals access to grass pasture, don’t use growth hormones, don’t routinely use antibiotics, and provide humane slaughtering practices. Certified Humane is a similar, less rigorous standard. It is available to corporate farms and doesn’t require that the animals have had access to the outdoors. The grass-fed label, certified by the Food Alliance, the American Grassfed Association, or the USDA, requires that animals eat a grass diet although they may still have been confined to pens or feedlots. The Global Animal Partnership 5-Step Animal Welfare Rating, developed by Whole Foods and now with third-party certification, offers a range of options. A “5+” represents the highest quality of organic animal husbandry but all steps prohibit growth hormones and the routine use of antibiotics.

Unfortunately, kosher and halal labels do not restrict growth hormones, pesticide residue, or antibiotic use. Similarly, “natural” means something has been minimally processed, but it does not restrict artificial growth hormones, antibiotic use, or pesticide residues.

Egg Labels

The best options for eggs are those that are certified organic and pastured with one of the following labels to back it up: such as AWA, or certified by the Canadian Organic Regime, the Certified Organic Association of BC, Pro-Cert, or BC SPCA. These labels indicate that the hens aren’t fed antibiotics and spend time running around outdoors, rather than being locked inside overcrowded barns (with the exception of those labelled “Free-Run,” which means they are given area to run around only indoors). Eggs labelled “vegetarian fed” is almost a certain indicator that the chicken has been raised entirely indoors and fed grain. This isn’t a healthy diet for chickens and consequently doesn’t make the healthiest eggs for human consumption either.

Fair Trade Labels

FLO-CERT and Fair to Life are two organizations that certify products or ingredients to ensure that farmers are paid a living wage and are treated fairly. They support co-operatives and family farms, especially in the developing world, and minimize middle men. Their growers use sustainable farming practices with limited agrochemicals and no GMOs. This can be a particularly meaningful label when buying products, such as textiles or coffee, where there are often particularly unfair labour practices.

Sustainable Seafood Labels

The USDA and Canada Organic/Biologique labels are currently meaningless when it comes to fish, so be wary when you see seafood labelled as organic. Proposed standards are on the way. In the meantime, other labels exist to indicate you are getting fish that was caught with respect to the health of the oceans, was not cloned or fed GMO food, and wasn’t treated with the heavy doses of antibiotics fed to most farm-raised fish.

In general, seafood labels focus on the health of fishery stocks.The Marine Stewardship Council label indicates that seafood is wild-caught and the fishery is practicing some care of fish stocks. Seafood Watch by the Monterey Bay Aquarium provides guides for sustainable fisheries by region. Canadians have a similar system called SeaChoice and the Vancouver Aquarium’s Ocean Wise certification. Greenpeace posts a Red List of the most endangered food fish species on its website. To find seafood that is lower in mercury and other contaminants, Seafood Watch maintains a Super Green List and the KidSafeSeafood program reports seafood choices that are gentler on both Earth and body.

Read the Safe Seafood section to learn about the best seafood to eat and more about how to find truly wild salmon.


Gluten-Free and Other Allergen Labels

Food allergies are on the rise and can be deadly. In the U.S. and Canada, labels must note foods that contain the top allergens, gluten, and added sulphites. When something has an added “Gluten-free” label that means that the item does not include any gluten-containing ingredients, although there still may be cross-contamination. An item can be certified gluten-free as long as it has 20 parts-per-million of gluten or less, which is safe for those with Celiac disease. For most people avoiding gluten, it is enough to just contain the gluten-containing grains which are: wheat, kamut, semolina, spelt, barley, bulgur, and rye.


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