Painting by Chloe Wise

Decoding Food Labels

by Madison Cavallaro

Decoding Food Labels: ‘What Does That Symbol Even Mean?’

One of the most confusing topics to understand about food products is their labels. Most of them are a symbol offering little explanation and can be misleading in how the certification is received. This article will break down common food labels to help the conscious consumer buy better products for the planet, their health, and the workers involved in producing the item.


Not All Labels Say What They Mean…

A "good label" is a label that provides a clear indication that the product has been certified in a certain standard. For example, on dairy and meat products, you might see "Free-range" or "pasture-raised." While we'd all like to think that means the animal had free-range of large bountiful green pastures, the USDA defines this as "outdoor access." A very vague definition allows for animals to have a small hole to look out of while never actually experiencing the outside world.  

Humane Farm Animal Care (HFAC) has since made efforts to curb this inhumane and misleading food labeling. They have done this by providing official HFAC Certified Humane® "Pasture Raised" and "Free Range" requirements to meet higher standards. All criteria must be met to receive the certification, including being outdoors year-round, outdoors 6 hours a day, and for "Pasture-Raised," 108 sq ft. per bird/animal, along with many more standards. Seeing this label on a food product ensures that the meat and dairy products are held to higher standards.

Other labels that lack clear standards are on seafood products. These include "natural, pole & line caught, sustainably caught, responsibly farmed, sustainably harvested, and responsibly caught." These food labels do not provide any verification, as the USDA has no set standards for organic seafood. If labeled certified organic, it is not from the United States, and standards may not align with USDA organic.

Unfortunately, other certified labels for seafood do not have high standards. Even so, the "Whole foods Responsibly farmed" is often considered a reliable label but still allows for industrial-scale farms that degrade farmland and the ocean. Other seafood labels are hard to trust as many companies are accused of knowingly using practices that do not meet requirements for seafood labeling. Some of these labels include "dolphin-safe" and "MSC certified sustainable."


Produce Labels Can Be Just as Misleading 

Produce can be equally as challenging to identify the true meaning of a label. However, there are some very trustworthy labels. The USDA organic label has the strongest standards considering environmental sustainability. It certifies the product is produced without industrial pesticides and prohibits synthetic fertilizers, GMOs, sewage sludge, and antibiotics. The downside of this is the lack of soil health monitoring and it does not address worker welfare.

Luckily, many produce and food items have multiple labels that can provide a more comprehensive inspection into the production of the product. For example, "The Demeter Certified Biodynamic" label provides some assessment of soil health which the USDA organic label lacks.

A label that is considered peak criteria for agriculture practices and social justice is "Food Justice Certified." The label ensures health care insurance, fair/living wages, and protection for workers on farms. Related to crop production, it guarantees biodiversity, soil monitoring, and the prohibition of antibiotics, GMOs, synthetic and industrial pesticides, and sewage sludge. Other labels include Fair Trade CertifiedTM, which ensures a fair/living wage and some assessment into standards for workers on farms and health care insurance offered.


Labels Relating to Sustainability and Eco Production

Thankfully, these labels are becoming more common. Many of these pertain to the brand's qualities and give you insight into their sustainable practices. "B Corp" is a label indicating that the company is held to legal accountability for its impact on workers, customers, and the community. It also ensures transparency of environmental impact and prevents unethical actions in the performance of creating the product.

Another standard becoming more common is "Climate Neutral Certified." This certification program holds companies accountable for the amount of carbon they're emitting. It is a three-step process where they document their previous carbon emissions, commit to offsetting that number, and reduce within 12-24 months. One last certification is the "Made Safe Certified." This label guarantees the product contains no harmful substances including, neurotoxins, endocrine disruptors, carcinogens, and many other hazardous substances. This ensures the product is safely produced and is healthier for the planet and the person using it.


Last But Not least- Recycling Labels

These labels are so confusing, I can't even write about them without showing the symbols themselves. It would simply not make sense. This is for many reasons: every state and city can have different recycling programs. Meaning, trying to actually recycle something is a huge mess.


Recycle: meaning, somewhere, in a general sense, this can be recycled. DOES NOT mean in every location. 

Made from recycled Materials: indicated this item was recycled but does not mean it can still be recycled. Sometimes fibers can’t be recycled anymore.

PET or PETE recycling: can be recycled through most curbside recycling programs if emptied and rinsed. Discard caps into the trash.

HDPE recycling: can be recycled through most curbside recycling programs. Usually, it can only be bottle containers with a “neck.”

PVC or V recycling: rarely can be recycled at home. Best to dispose of at a local waste management location.

LDPE recycling: often not accepted for at-home recycling. It is best to either throw it in the trash or see if the item can be returned to the store for recycling.

PP recycling: is accepted by some curbside recycling programs. Make sure the item is cleaned and throw caps into the trash.

PS recycling: is not accepted by most curbside programs. Best to throw into the trash making sure it is enclosed in a tight bag to prevent breakage.

Miscellaneous recycling: don’t expect your curbside program to recycle these. The best option is to consult the local waste management for potential recycling options.


Unfortunately, these guidelines are general and always vary between cities and states. It's suggested to check your local standards for best recycling practices. In many cases, if an item that can't be recycled locally ends up in the bin, the entirety can be discarded as not recyclable. 


Reading Between the Lines

It may be hard to believe, but I only just scratched the surface of food labeling. These are just a few examples of how misleading the symbols can be and, therefore, impacting our environment, community, and health. We all want to believe the good in the blanket statements made by companies like "Made with natural ingredients" and "produced ethically." Still, unless the label certifies it, it's probably not true. Next time you're at the supermarket, I challenge you to look for these symbols, and when you see one you don't recognize, research it. It may take more time, but it is worth it if you can avoid products that are not good for your own health, the planet, and the workers producing them.


Labels Mentioned


Sources: 1 Certified Humane / 2 CBS News / 3 Food Print / 4 NPR / 5 NPR / 6 Turning Green / 7 San Jose Recycles / 8 Good Housekeeping 


Meet our Contributor

Madison is an Eating Disorder Consoler in Los Angeles. She graduated from Emmanuel College and Northeastern University in Boston with a B.S. and M.S. and specializes in health science and nutrition. Throughout her career, she has aspired to impact the nutrition field in a positive way. With her background and interest in sustainability, health, and wellness, she aims to address limitations in health by making these top

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