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10 Product Labels That Don't Mean Organic

Don't confuse all the many buzz labels out there with the USDA Organic Seal


With all the popular "eco-minded" food labels and terms out there right now, it's no surprise people are confused. Many consumers mix up the official USDA Organic Seal with other, non-certified labels, or assume that some of these labels overlap. However, right now, the only real organic label in the United States is the USDA Organic Seal. Without this seal, it's unclear if a product is truly organic or not.

Now, just because a product label doesn't mean organic, that doesn't make the label bad or non-useful. Many of the labels below are very important in their own ways, they're just not the same as organic.

1. Locally Grown

Image © alisonhancock - Fotolia.com

Is there an official Locally Grown label?

No. Usually locally grown products bear simply a "locally grown" statement or the producer themselves will tell you that the product is locally grown.

What products is this label commonly used with?

Locally Grown is used for all sorts of food products from produce to eggs to meats to jams and much more. Locally grown is even applied to non-food products in some cases, for example textiles, cleaners, body care products and even products made with wood.

How useful is this label?

The statement that a product is locally grown, or even simply, "local" is only semi-useful. Locally grown food is not officially defined or monitored, although some states do set limits on what can be called "local." In most cases though, unless you specifically ask, it's unclear if a local food product is defined as local by distance to market, state or city borders, or other regional boundaries. Various markets and sellers also set their own definition of local.

With so many individual definitions in the mix, local is not well-defined and thus, isn't very useful as a stand-alone statement. What can make the statement useful is the addition of more information. For example, a product label that states, "Grown and sold locally in Milbridge, ME" is far more useful than, "Locally grown."

How is this label connected to organics?

Often local food is grown organically, but that's the only connection. Just because a product is organic, it doesn't mean that product is local and likewise, local food is not always organic. Ideally to eat ethically, safely and responsibly, consumers would strive for both local and organics, but that's not always the case.

2. Sustainable

Sustainable Food Labels
Photo © kabliczech - Fotolia

Is there an official Sustainable label?

No. Sustainable is a term that's applied to labels of food and other products, as well as company practices, but it's not a real, certified term. Often times, a company will use this term not on a product, but in press material about their company.

What products is this label commonly used with?

Everything you can imagine from food to clothing to building supplies and more.

How useful is this label?

The term 'sustainable' is misused so often that it's not very useful for consumers anymore. Sustainable could mean anything. Sure, it could mean good things, such as it may define a product that really is more energy efficient or it could mean that a company ethically offsets carbon and uses all recycled packaging.

Sadly, 'sustainable' may also mean that the company once bought some recycled paper or that amid all their bleach containing products they sell just one safer, less toxic product.

There's no doubt that sustainable practices and products are a good deal for people and the earth, but simply saying a company is sustainable, without backing up why, means very little.

How is this label connected to organics?

Organic production is naturally somewhat sustainable due to certain NOP rules. Still, there are few NOP policies that mandate specific sustainable practices. Sustainable and organic can be interchangeable, if a company decides to be both organic and eco-friendly, but as a general rule these terms do not mean the same thing.

3. Natural

Natural food labels
Photo ©Billy Alexander via sxc.

Is there an official Natural label?

No. The term 'natural' is used on product packaging, but there's no across the board label. That said, The Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) does somewhat mandate what products may bear or not bear this term.

What products is this label commonly used with?

The term natural is often used on food products but it's also extremely popular as a key term on body care products, cleaning products and toys.

How useful is this label?

Natural is one of the least useful and most confusing terms used for products. First of all, when it comes to food, The Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) somewhat monitors the use of the term 'natural,' stating that a product labeled as natural cannot contain artificial ingredient or added color and the product can only be minimally processed. However, these rules are a far cry from sound regulations and they only apply to edible products, not other consumer products that may be labeled, such as toys or body care.

On top of not being well regulated, this term is false in that "naturally" labeled products may contain synthetic ingredients. Worst of all though is the fact that this term has the ability to confuse consumers who often see this term and think they're getting a safer, more ethical or healthier product, when they're not. Luckily consumers are catching on and many say they no longer trust the term natural.

How is this label connected to organics?

The term natural is not related to organics at all. Natural is a term mainly used to market products as more healthy, safe or ethical to consumers but there's almost zero regulations to back any of these claims up. At worst, this term is used to greenwash products that are clearly not healthy, safe or ethical. Certified organic food must adhere to strict guidelines and is proven safer for people and the planet.

4. Free-Range

Organic cows grazing in pasture
Image Courtesy of Organic Trade Association

NOTE: To clarify, other terms you may consider related to Free-Range include cage-free, pasture-raised and anything else that concerns animals and freedom vs. cages.

Is there an official Free-Range label?

No. There are not any significant pasture-raised type labels in the U.S. Many products carry product statements about free-range, cage-free or pasture-raised, but there's not an across the board label.

What products is this label commonly used with?

It's very common to see animal welfare type labels on dairy products, eggs and meat.

How useful is this label?

None of the outdoor access labels are very useful. Whether free-range, cage-free or pasture-raised - all of these terms are wildly unregulated and say little about actual animal raising practices. The only way to really know anything about animal welfare within a specific operation is to visit that operation and see how the animals are being raised.

How is this label connected to organics?

Organic livestock must be allowed certain access to the outdoors, but NOP doesn't cover many animal welfare issues in their policies. Basically, organics aren't about animal welfare, although may people think NOP should include animal welfare as a certification requirement.

On the flip side, just because an animal is allowed access to the outside world, it doesn't mean that animal is being raised organically. The animal is raised in nicer conditions perhaps, but not necessarily organically.

5. Biodynamic

Demeter Biodynamic certification
Photo ©Demeter

Is there an official Biodynamic label?

Yes. The Biodynamic® label is an official label that's certified by an independent third party according to standards set by the Demeter® Biodynamic Farm Standard.

What products is this label commonly used with?

It's likely that wine is the most well-known consumer product that carries the Biodynamic label, but any farm products from produce to meats to dairy may wear this label.

How useful is this label?

Unlike organic certification, which includes more rigid, across the board rules, Biodynamic certification is more flexible and fine-tuned to a specific operation. Also, it's debated how clearly defined the rules are and the Biodynamic label is not as widely understood as the organic seal.

That said, if one understand the rules Biodynamic farmers and producers follow, this label is a good label to look for as it can help you choose a more healthy and earth-friendly product. Overall, Biodynamic is well enough defined and verified to be a useful consumer label. It's also a useful label for companies as it can help show you are concerned about more issues than simply organic, for example, healthy communities and biodiversity.

How is this label connected to organics?

Products may be certified as both organic and Biodynamic. Without both certifications though, these two terms aren't one and the same. I.e. you cannot just assume that an organic farmer follows the rules of the Biodynamic label or that a Biodynamic farmer follows the USDA set criteria for certified organics.

6. Hormone-Free

Organic Dairy © Elke Dennis - Fotolia

Is there an official Hormone-Free label?

Sort of. In the 90s some states didn't allow the term "hormone-free" on products. In 2010 however, federal court got rid of an Ohio ban on dairy products carrying hormone-free labels. As this rule changed in Ohio, the last hold-out state, the entire country became okay with claims of hormone-free on various products. That said, there's not a hormone-free label that's used across the board, this is another case of a term simply being spelled out on a product label.

What products is this label commonly used with?

Dairy products are most commonly associated with hormone statements, but meats also carry hormone-minded statements.

How useful is this label?

The term 'hormone-free' is non-useful because it's false. Technically there is no such thing as hormone-free milk or meat, as all animals are born with hormones. What's more clear and useful is when a label directly says that the product is "artificial hormone-free" or "synthetic hormone-free" or "rBSTs-free."

Furthermore the USDA states that any labels stating one of the following terms, with regards to hormone labeling, is an unapproved claim: antibiotic free, hormone free, residue free, residue tested, naturally raised, naturally grown, chemical free or drug free. Also, this term is misused because as the USDA states, "Hormones are only approved for use in beef cattle and lamb production." Therefore the claim of hormone-free on poultry, hogs, veal calves or exotic, non-amenable species is not even allowed unless it is followed with the statement, "Federal regulations prohibit the use of hormones in poultry."

How is this label connected to organics?

rBGH, along with other artificial hormones, may not be used on animals by certified organic dairy producers. Thus, organic livestock is technically free from artificial hormones. However, if a producer can show that they abstain from artificial hormones they may label a product as "raised without added hormones" or raised without antibiotics" even if they're not certified organic.

7. Fair Trade

Photo courtesy of Fair Trade USA

Is there an official Fair Trade label?

Yes. There are actually many official Fair Trade labels. The most commonly known Fair Trade label in the USA, is likely the Fair Trade USA label. There's also the FAIRTRADE Mark, which certifies that international fair trade standards have been met and is a registered trademark of Fairtrade International (FLO). Other countries have their own Fair Trade labels, but they're not seen much in the U.S.

What products is this label commonly used with?

Coffee and chocolates are two of the most well-known products associated with fair trade, but any number of products can now be certified as fairly traded. Textiles, home products, beans, rice, grains, fruits, body care products, toys, honey, sports equipment, sugar and other baking goods, tea and much, much more can be certified and wear a fair trade label.

How useful is this label?

Official Fair Trade labels are very useful, showing consumers that the product they're purchasing are economically, socially and environmentally sound. Fair trade also shows that the farmers and farm workers receive competitive prices, improved terms of trade and social premiums for community investment.

How is this label connected to organics?

Organic products may also be certified Fair Trade. For example, Equal Exchange chocolate bars are both organic and Fair Trade. Many other food products are both as well, including various coffee brands and baking goods.

That said, products can simply be one or the other. Fair Trade does not automatically denote organic and organic certification alone says nothing about worker conditions or country of origin. Both labels are excellent, but they don't mean the same thing.

8. Biodegradable

biodegradable packaging
Photo ©Henkster via sxc.

Is there an official Biodegradable label?

Yes. In 1999 the Biodegradable Products Institute (BPI) created an official label. This label does require products to meet certain standards and is meant to help ensure consumers that a product is truly compostable. This label is not widely used though and statement claims of biodegradability are also used, unregulated by many other companies.

What products is this label commonly used with?

The official label or a statement of biodegradable ease is seen on products such as garbage bags, paper products, tea bags, food packaging, some plastic containers, disposable tableware and utensils, mail packaging materials, resins used as raw materials and more.

How useful is this label?

The problems with biodegradable labels are many. Not only do most so called biodegradable items not break down easily, but they may not break down for decades or even centuries. There's not much anyone can do about it, as biodegradable statements aren't well-regulated. Both the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) and BPI have set general guidelines about what sort of products can legitimately claim to be biodegradable. However, both agencies also admit that even products that follow their own set guidelines may not break down well except for in ideal biodegradable situations, such as a controlled composting environment.

How is this label connected to organics?

Biodegradable and organic aren't connected. Organic encompasses a specific way of growing and producing a product while biodegradable simply addresses how a product may eventually break down. Some organic companies may use biodegradable packaging, which likely causes some confusion, but there's no real connection between these two labels.

9. FSC Certified

sustainably managed forest
Photo ©dudek25 via sxc.

Is there an official FSC Certified label?

Yes. There are three FSC 'On-product Labels,' that are certified by the Forest Stewardship Council (FSC).

What products is this label commonly used with?

Wood and paper products or other forest harvested products.

How useful is this label?

This label is very useful if you're concerned about forest sustainability. The label mandates very specific and traceable rules that address many issues that may negatively affect our world's forests.

How is this label connected to organics?

In passing, I've heard people say that FSC Certified wood is organic, which is not true across the board. I'm guessing the issue goes back to people believing that organics are sustainable by nature (not totally true) and because FSC certification is indeed sustainable, the connection is made.

However, the labels are not interchangeable, although they can be combined for a company's sake. For example, a furniture company may choose to use certified organic textiles and FSC Certified wood to make a chair, thus they can now claim that they're organic and FSC Certified. It's smart to double up on great labels, but these two labels still don't mean the same thing.

10. Non-GMO

non gmo project seal
Image ©Non-GMO Project

Is there an official Non-GMO label?

Kind of. At this time, there are no U.S. government or agricultural organization that recognize official non-GMO labels or statements. That said, various consumer groups have banded together and taken things into their own hands. For example there's the Non-GMO Project Verified Seal, which means a product has gone through a verification process set by the Non-GMO Project Standard. Additionally, although not required by law, many companies have made non-GMO statements and said statements have been compiled by a number of food safety advocacy groups, such as the Center for Food Safety.

What products is this label commonly used with?

GMO-free labels and statements are used in conjunction with food products across the board, from milk to cereal to candy to baby formula to canned goods and everything in-between.

How useful is this label?

The Non-GMO Project Verified Seal or claims of “GMO free” are somewhat useful but are currently suffering because GMO-free is not a legally or scientifically defensible term, not in the USA anyhow. There are some major limitations of testing methodology in play, along with some serious risks of GMO contamination from other GMO crops, seeds, soil and ingredients.

That said, until the United States decides that Non-GMO products are important enough to label, the Non-GMO Project Verified Seal is the best we have, and is certainly better than no label at all. At the very least is shows that some companies and organizations do care that consumers should be allowed a non-GMO choice.

How is this label connected to organics?

Currently, food items that are certified USDA organic cannot, by NOP policy, contain genetically modified ingredients. NOP regulations prohibit the use of GMOs as “excluded methods” under 7 CFR § 205.105, “Allowed and prohibited substances, methods, and ingredients in organic production and handling.” That said, organics may not be non-GMO entirely, because of GMO contamination. The USDA will still allow an organic product to be labeled as such, even if some GMO contamination is detected, so long as, "An organic operation has not used excluded methods and takes reasonable steps to avoid contact with the products of excluded methods as detailed in their approved organic system plan."

Additionally, just because a food item is Non-GMO does not mean it was grown or produced organically. Non-GMO and organic have similarities on some levels, but they're in no way interchangeable.

This article is current as of Dec 2011.

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