START A PETITION 27,000,000 members: the world's largest community for good
733,638 people care about Real Food

Which Food Labels Mean What They Say?

  • by
  • November 18, 2012
  • 8:20 am
Which Food Labels Mean What They Say?

It’s hard to know with so many of them out there and more labels being introduced every month. According to Ecolabel Index, “the largest global directory of ecolabels,” there are now 432 eco-labels in 197 countries and 25 industry sectors — from personal care products to household cleaners to appliances to food.

As noted in a recent Associated Press (AP) article, “eco-labels have multiplied in recent years in response to rising consumer demand for more information about products and increased attention to animal and farmworker welfare, personal health, and the effects of conventional farming on the environment.” Many consumers are happy to pay more for foods with labels that signify values in line with their own.

Not everyone likes these labels, though. One farmer quoted in the AP article, Tom Willey of TD Willey Farms in Madera, California, argues that labels can’t substitute for “people being intimate with the farmers who grow their food.” Better to shop at farmers’ markets and get to know the growers from whom you buy your food, Willey says. For many people, however, that’s just not an option. And the next best thing, it seems, is to read the labels.

With so many labels being used, many consumers are now confused about what each one of them stands for. Some labels, in fact, are meaningless, with flimsy standards and no oversight to speak of, used at the sole discretion of the producer or manufacturer. Other labels, on the other hand, represent standards established by the federal government or by third-party certifiers. There are also labels that lie somewhere in between. So how do you know which food labels mean what they say?

Ecolabel Index publishes a comprehensive index of labels, with an explanation for each. You have to pay, however, for access to additional information about how compliance with the label’s standards is ensured, for example, or the name of the organization that manages the label.

The Greener Choices Eco-Labels database, published by Consumer Reports, allows you to search by label category (e.g., organic, social responsibility, environmental persistence) and product area (beef, fruit, processed food and nuts) or for a specific label that you’ve been wondering about. You can also browse all 73 food labels in the database here. Want to know more about the labels on household cleaners and personal care products? That’s in there, too.

For those of you who want to know what the labels on your food really mean, I wholly recommend this database. There’s a report card for every label that grades it on how meaningful it is (“highly,” “somewhat” or “not” meaningful) and whether it is verified, among other criteria. It also provides a fairly thorough explanation of what the label means. Products bearing the “Demeter Biodynamic” label, for example,

were produced without the use of synthetic pesticides and fertilizers; and without animal by-products. Demeter prohibits the use of genetic engineering and has since 1992. In addition, crops may not be grown in areas subject to strong electromagnetic fields…

Biodynamic agriculture began in 1928 as a result of an Austrian based Anthroposophical movement, a “spiritual science,” and incorporates guiding principles that include cosmic rhythm (i.e., timing of the sun and moon phases), food grown from healthy, living soil, specific organic preparations for fertilizing and consumer connection with farmers. There are also specific provisions for animal health and welfare…

“Highly meaningful” food labels, as rated by Consumer Reports in the Greener Choices Eco-Labels database, include Animal Welfare Approved, Bird Friendly, Certified Humane Raised and Handled, Demeter Certified Biodynamic, Food Alliance, Rainforest Alliance Certified and USDA Organic.

Labels that are “somewhat meaningful” include Certified Vegan, Grassfed, Marine Stewardship Council, No Additives, No Antibiotics Administered, No Hormones Administered and Salmon Safe.

Labels rated as “not meaningful” — the ones consumers should be most wary of — include 100% Vegan, Antibiotic Free, Free Range, Hormone Free and Natural.


Related Stories:

Food Labels Lie

Food Labels Aren’t Accurate (And That’s Dangerous)

New USDA Rule Would Require Meat Additives On Nutrition Labels

Read more: , , ,

Photo from Thinkstock

have you shared this story yet?

some of the best people we know are doing it


+ add your own
9:46PM PDT on Jul 27, 2013

...thanks for posting--will continue to read labels even after they have been corrected--sad that we can't trust companies about their products...thus questioning if we should purchase them...

11:16AM PDT on Jul 23, 2013

" Labels rated as “not meaningful” — the ones consumers should be most wary of — include 100% Vegan, Antibiotic Free, Free Range, Hormone Free and Natural. "

Thanks for posting article..

10:51AM PDT on Jul 23, 2013

Read the labels; Read the labels and Read the labels and use a wee bit of the common sense that we've all been give. The term/phrase "ALL NATURALl" is an unregulated phrase/term and it means absolutely nothing and the folks using the term/phrase do not want you to know that. Despite where it comes from - your faucet, your toilet bowel, a puddle in the street, a polluted river, lake or stream , WATER is still "All Natural". The term/phase that you need to look for is "100% Organic". Don and I CAN! :-))

8:25AM PDT on Jul 23, 2013

Most labels are meaningless anyway. We are collectively the largest group of scientific guinea pigs ever known when it comes to the food we eat.

7:18AM PDT on Jul 23, 2013


2:29AM PDT on Jul 23, 2013

“Highly meaningful,” “somewhat meaningful,” “not meaningful,” all this about food labels, not a game!

2:53AM PST on Feb 2, 2013

Do the words really mean it?

9:57PM PST on Jan 21, 2013

Thanks because they try to make it confusing too.

11:38AM PST on Jan 20, 2013

Dzięki za informacje.

11:11AM PST on Dec 5, 2012

Thank you for the information

add your comment

Disclaimer: The views expressed above are solely those of the author and may not reflect those of
Care2, Inc., its employees or advertisers.

Care2 - Be Extraordinary - Start a Care2 Petition
ads keep care2 free

Recent Comments from Causes

It is not uncommon for pigs crammed in trucks (hours w/o food and water) to suffocate when in transport…

My cats were out at night. Because their life is a night life. And they loved so much hunting and playing…

All my kids are rescues either directly from the street or from a rescue group. Recently though, I have…

meet our writers

Julie M. Rodriguez Julie M. Rodriguez is an arts, green living, and political writer based in San Mateo, CA. Her work... more
ads keep care2 free

Select names from your address book   |   Help

We hate spam. We do not sell or share the email addresses you provide.

site feedback


Problem on this page? Briefly let us know what isn't working for you and we'll try to make it right!