Food labels: decoding the mystery

Jessica Seftel

Aisles of food in the supermarket shelves are labeled “Organic,” “Natural,” or “Sustainable.” All sound alike, yet have very different meanings. Here’s a quick overview to help you navigate the way while shopping for the right foods.

The term “Organic” is probably most used and the easiest to break down. Federal organic standards were implemented in 2002. According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, “To qualify, an organic product must be grown or raised without toxic and synthetic pesticides, antibiotics, or growth hormones. As well, before labeling the government-approved certifier must inspect to make sure all foods meet the standards.”

Natural and all-natural labels are the most misleading. According to Kim Rawlings of the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, “The agency hasn’t objected the term natural on food labels, provided it is used in a truthful manner.” It may not contain added colors, artificial flavors or synthetic substances. Interestingly enough, the term “Natural” isn’t permitted on ingredients lists, just “No Artificial Flavoring.”

Currently, sustainability certification applies to agriculture, and is made up of three things: consumer needs, the health of the environment, and economic profitability. Farmers undergo a certification process with all their crops to be labeled “sustainable,” but this doesn’t mean that the product is local or organic.

Many factors may influence shoppers on their next trip to the grocery store as to whether to buy or not to buy these labeled items. It’s a personal decision, keeping in mind factors such as nutrition, quality, and appearance. However, with a better understanding of the meaning, it will help decide what goes on your plate!

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