Food Labels: What Do All the Symbols and Certifications Mean?


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Reading food labels can be confusing and frustrating for consumers. From USDA Organic to Fair Trade Certified, this article will help you decipher the symbols and food label certifications on your food labels to become a more informed shopper.

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USDA Organic
The United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) defines organic as a food label term “that indicates that the food or other agricultural product has been produced through approved methods that integrate cultural, biological, and mechanical practices that foster cycling of resources, promote ecological balance, and conserve biodiversity”. Producers of organic foods may not use genetically modified seeds, sewage sludge, synthetic fertilizers, or irradiation as part of their agricultural practices. Farmers and ranchers must adhere to standards and regulations, apply for certification, and undergo inspections in order to achieve certifications and food label symbol. The USDA guidelines for producers can be found here .

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Oregon Tilth
The Oregon Tilth is a non-profit organization that endorses sustainability in areas of biodiversity, soil health, conservation, and social equity in agrigulture. As an official USDA National Organic Program (NOP) independent, accredited certifier, the Oregon Tilth also uses strict guidelines for the certification process. Foods certified through the Oregon Tilth do not have to be grown in Oregon to qualify and include produce, livestock, packaged foods, feed, fiber, and restaurant menu items. Often you will see both the USDA Organic and Oregon Tilth symbols on a food label.

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NON GMO Project Verified
Foods with the NON GMO Project Verified Seal on the food label have been produced in accordance to GMO avoidance. The NON GMO Project states: “We require ongoing testing of all at-risk ingredients—any ingredient being grown commercially in GMO form must be tested prior to use in a verified product. We use an Action Threshold of 0.9%. This is in alignment with laws in the European Union, where any product containing more than 0.9% GMO must be labeled. Absence of all GMOs is the target for all Non-GMO Project Standard compliant products.”

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Fair Trade Certified
This certification model and food label ensures equitable and fair trade practices up the supply chain. Companies must purchase from certified farms, pay the Fair Trade price, and agree to stringent audits. Fair Trade certified products range from coffee and cocoa to apparel and home goods.

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Rainforest Alliance
The Rainforest Alliance “works to conserve biodiversity and improve livelihoods by promoting and evaluating the implementation of the most globally respected sustainability standards in a variety of fields.” Many organic coffees have the Rainforest Alliance symbol on the food label. Shop the Frog!

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Certified Humane
The goal of this certification is to assure consumers that the animal product they are purchasing was raised humanely from birth through slaughter. This nonprofit organization certifies farms and ranches who meet their standards of farm animal treatment. This food label is primarily featured on eggs and meats that have passed the rigorous certification process.

Read your food label!

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