Organic. Fresh. Natural. They all sound healthful enough, but when it comes to claims on food labels, you practically need a glossary to keep track of what means what (and what means nothing). Here’s a guide to a few of the best and worst food labels now in rotation.
A few good labels
This easy-to-spot seal means that at least 95 percent of the ingredients in a given item are certified organic—for example, they're produced without the use of synthetic fertilizers, most synthetic pesticides, or genetically engineered crops. And meat that's certified organic comes from animals raised without antibiotics or genetically modified feed. The Department of Agriculture has no organic standard for fish.
No antibiotics (plus USDA Process Verified)
The widespread use of antibiotics in farm animals encourages the growth of drug-resistant "superbugs" that can infect humans. A "Raised Without Antibiotics" or "No Antibiotics Administered" claim on meat and poultry indicates that the animal from which the food came received no antibiotics during its lifetime. Ideally, that statement should be accompanied by the "USDA Process Verified" seal, which means the agency has confirmed that the producer is doing what it says it is. Beware of sound-alike labels that aren't approved by the USDA, like "antibiotic free" and "no antibiotic residues." To learn more, go to NotInMyFood.org.
Animal Welfare Approved
This label ensures that chickens, cows, goats, rabbits, sheep, turkeys, and other animals raised for meat, dairy, or egg products were treated humanely from birth to slaughter — for example, by being given access to pasture. Only family farmers and cooperative groups of family farms can be AWA certified. Another good (though slightly less rigorous) option is "Certified Humane Raised and Handled." Like the AWA label, it was developed by a team that included animal scientists and veterinarians, and it applies to more than family farms. Both labels guarantee that the animals didn't receive antibiotics unless they were sick.
The “USDA Process Verified” grass-fed claim (labels vary) requires that meat came from an animal that was raised on a lifetime diet of 99 percent grass and forage, such as legumes, and had access to pasture during most of the growing season. Studies suggest that meat from such animals may provide more health benefits than meat from grain-fed, grain-finished animals. But these claims don’t always mean antibiotics were prohibited. So ideally, also look for the “USDA Organic” seal or USDA-verified “no antibiotics administered” claim. Or you can look for the American Grassfed logo, which certifies that the animal was fed only grass and didn’t get antibiotics.
Two claims that don’t mean what you think
Free-range (poultry only)
“This label is so sad,” says Urvashi Rangan, Ph.D., director of our Center for Consumer Safety and Sustainability. It invokes images of happy, free-grazing animals, but in fact producers only have to allow them some access to open air for an unspecified amount of time each day—even if it’s only 5 minutes.
Fresh (poultry only)
Chicken that’s frozen solid can be sold as “fresh” as long as its temperature doesn’t dip below 26° F —yes, a full 6 degrees below the freezing temperature for water. (To demonstrate that point, advocates from the California office of Consumers Union, the policy and advocacy arm of Consumer Reports, once bowled “fresh” chickens down the state capitol steps to show how rock-solid they were.) For fruits and vegetables, “fresh” is defined by the Food and Drug Administration and is closer to what you might expect: a food that is raw, has never been frozen or heated, and contains no preservatives.
One we wish would just go away
This ubiquitous claim is essentially meaningless. It does have a definition for meat and poultry, but it has to do only with how the meat was processed, not how the animal was raised. For everything else—cereal, snacks, you name it—it has no standard definition whatsoever. And manufacturers can, and do, use it on all sorts of processed foods, including products made with high-fructose corn syrup or genetically modified ingredients. A lawsuit filed in Colorado in November 2012 against Pepperidge Farm alleges that the “natural” claim on its Goldfish is misleading because the crackers contain genetically engineered soybeans. The company has stated that it is confident of the accuracy of the labels and stands behind its products. (The case is pending.)
Beware of the health halo
American Heart Association Heart-Check mark
Foods are allowed to bear claims about heart health if they meet certain standards such as minimal saturated fat or set percentage of whole-grain ingredients. But make sure you also check the nutrition facts. Welch's 100% Grape Juice bears the American Heart Association's Heart-Check mark alongside a statement that diets low in saturated fat and cholesterol may reduce the risk of heart disease. But an 8-ounce serving has 36 grams of sugar, more than a standard-sized Snickers bar.
Become a label sleuth
You can find free information on more than 120 labels found on food, personal-care products, and household cleaners—including our experts’ take on whether or not they’re meaningful—at our website GreenerChoices.org (click on Eco-Labels). iPhone, iPad, and iPod Touch users can also download the Eco-Labels mobile app (99 cents at the iTunes store).