A row of lettuce containers with lettuce labels
Illustration: The Tom Agency

As part of Consumer Reports' investigation on the safety of leafy greens, we reviewed the labels on packaged greens, and found a variety of claims. But not all of them are as good as they sound.

“The government requires that labels on food be truthful and not misleading, but it doesn’t have regulated definitions for many of the claims,” says Charlotte Vallaeys, senior policy analyst in food safety and nutrition at CR. Here’s a primer on the claims we came across most frequently.

Regulated Claims

Country of origin: Perishable produce, including greens, must be labeled with the country where it was grown.

More on Leafy Greens

USDA Organic: To carry this label, greens must have been produced on a certified farm that follows defined organic procedures, such as not using synthetic fertilizers or most synthetic pesticides.

Nutrition Facts Label: The Food and Drug Administration doesn’t require nutrition labeling on greens unless the packaging makes a claim about nutrients. So if your spinach is stamped with “good source of potassium,” it must carry a complete Nutrition Facts Label.

Excellent Source Of/High In: A serving of the food must contain at least 20 percent of the daily requirement of that nutrient.

Good Source Of: One serving must have between 10 and 19 percent of the daily dose of the named nutrient.

Fresh: According to the FDA, this term “means that the food is in its raw state and has not been frozen or subjected to any form of thermal processing or any other form of preservation.” However, the term doesn’t address when the greens were harvested, and those that were washed in a mild chlorine solution can be labeled fresh.

Unregulated Claims

Washed/Triple-Washed/Ready to Eat: The FDA doesn’t require greens to be washed, but most, even unpackaged ones, get a rinse. A washing claim may mean that greens aren’t gritty but doesn’t ensure that they’re bacteria-free.

Pesticide-Free: There’s a lot of potential for ambiguity with this claim: Does it mean that no pesticides were used in the production of the greens or that there is no pesticide residue remaining on greens that were produced with the use of the chemicals? There’s no real way to know. If you want greens grown without harmful pesticides, opt for those labeled USDA Organic.

Date harvested and/or region where grown: The FDA suggests that growers of romaine lettuce label their product with this information so that the lettuce can be more easily traced in the case of an outbreak. But this is voluntary and doesn’t apply to all leafy greens.

Hydroponically Grown/Hydroponic: Generally speaking, this means that the greens are grown in a greenhouse using a nutrient solution instead of soil, but no federal government agency regulates the term.

Non-GMO: This claim may be true, but it’s not all that meaningful. There are no genetically modified greens (including lettuce, spinach, and kale) on the market, so no green is GMO.

No Preservatives/Free From Artificial Ingredients: Most fresh produce doesn’t have preservatives or artificial ingredients, so the claim may be true, but it doesn’t set the labeled product apart from other ones.

Editor's Note: This article also appeared in the March 2020 issue of Consumer Reports magazine.