A few years ago, my family committed to more organic food. The switch was a result of curiosity: Where does our food come from? What does each ingredient mean? Just as important: Who’s behind our food’s production? Its distribution?
The same curiosity inspired me to research other bright labels we see on ostensibly healthy foods at the store, and what I found surprised me. Some labels are attractive, but don’t mean much because they’re not enforced by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), or similar private third party. Even markings that aren’t just for visual appeal may have farmers jumping through hoops to make ambiguous claims about the merits of their product. Here are six of the most reliable labels you can find at your local grocery store.
This may be my favorite label of all, because it gives credibility to small farmers who can’t afford the thousands of dollars it costs to obtain and keep the USDA’s organic certification. Instead of wading through stacks of paperwork to prove their commitment to humane and chemical-free practices, fellow farmers can audit one another for standards akin to the benchmarks of certified organic food.
Genetically modified (GM) or engineered ingredients are products that have been altered at the genetic level in a lab—not by any sort of hybridization or breeding practice. This means a gene from an herbicide-resistant bacteria can mix with a traditional corn plant to create a new breed of corn, one that couldn’t have happened naturally, even with endless cross-pollinating possibilities.
GMOs may be harmless to consume, but the experts aren’t all in agreement. And as a smart shopper, you may want to wait until they’ve earned an official all-clear. In the meantime, trust the Non-GMO Project Verified seal of approval.
PETA Cruelty Free Certification
I can’t imagine using a personal care product that may have been tested on animals first, which is why I always look for the bunny logo that certifies an item is “Cruelty Free.” This one was created by People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA), and lets you know that, by choosing one product over another, you’re supporting kindness toward lives that don’t otherwise have a vote in how certain products are manufactured.
The Fair Trade International Logo
Of course, animals are not the only group that needs a commercial advocate. Around the world, many people are born into cultures where their options are so limited, they must start working at an early age for an industry they don’t get to choose. Chocolate, coffee, diamonds, textiles, tourism, and coal are a few businesses that employ those in developing countries for wages that would be illegal in many western workplaces.
Luckily, today’s producers and distributors often make a commitment to “Fair Trade,” and there are numerous certifications out there with their own unique specialties. I prefer Fairtrade International; it’s the most reputable in the industry, having started the still-growing trend a decade ago.
Animal Welfare Approved
Although many labels, including “Certified Humane” and “American Humane Certified” allow some very ugly practices, the Animal Welfare Approval seal is an icon you can trust. Egg producers, for example, are not allowed to debeak or force their birds to molt by way of food deprivation—a standard that others do not require. My favorite part of this certification? It’s rigorous but not cost-prohibitive for those harvesting them. In fact, farmers pay nothing to achieve it, but must prove their kindness toward their animals in order to earn this appealing badge.
As my family learns how to read labels, one logo has become known to us as a “catch-all,” and that’s the Food Alliance Certification.
Your food goes through a number of hands before it arrives in your kitchen. That’s why tracing each step in this supply chain is so important. The Food Alliance Certification stands out as a stamp of guaranteed responsibility through the entire production and distribution process. A third party inspects your food producer’s operations in four areas: responsible pest and disease prevention or management, water and soil conservation, human resources, and local wildlife habitat care. If there was label to cover all these bases, this one would be it.
What certification do you trust most? Leave a comment below or tweet your favorites to @TomsofMaine.
Images source: Bethany Johnson
This article was brought to you by Tom’s of Maine. The views and opinions expressed by the author do not reflect the position of Tom’s of Maine.