Environmental Labels & Lingo

Written by Jasmine St. Denny, Dietetic Intern from Meredith College

In an effort to be healthier, more wholesome, and environmentally friendly, we gravitate toward key terms, like, organic, grass fed, and natural.  However, do those words mean what we think?  Below, we will look deeper into the terminology and regulations.

Who regulates?
TheU.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) regulates food labels, and requires all to be truthful.  But really, how “Natural” are those Cheetos or bottled fruit smoothies?

  • ·         Third party certification programs help the consumer trust foods claims, as they inspect and ensure FDA and USDA regulations are being met.  Examples include UL, NSF, NON GMO Project, Food Alliance Certified, Animal Welfare Approved, etc.

Meat & Poultry Labeling
Below are just a few potentially misleading labels.

  • ·         “No Hormones” for pork & poultry: federal regulations already prohibit the use of hormones for any pork and poultry products. The use of hormones is still allowed with beef; therefore, the “No Hormones” claims, are useful, and not just a marketing tactic.
  • ·         “Cage-free:” Although, chickens are “uncaged,” and not in the very small battery cages, those chickens are not required to have access to the outdoors. 
  • ·         “Free-range/ Free-roaming:” Chickens are “uncaged” and have “access” to the outdoors, but how much “access” is not regulated.  This phrase does not necessarily mean the chickens live outdoors.
  • ·         “Pasture-raised:” Is more what we may think of when we envision a happy and free chicken.  Chickens are raised in a pasture, and probably have a coop for protection.

Safe & Accurate Food Labeling Act of 2015 is a bill that was introduced to regulate GMO and natural labeling.

  • ·         “Title I – Food Safety Affirmation For Certain Plant Products,” would have FDA require GMO foods to be labeled and the USDA to publish a list of safe GMO plants and lawful foods.
  • ·         “Title II – Genetic Engineering Certification, ” would regulate claims that non-GMO foods are safer or of higher quality than GMO foods.
  • ·         “Title II – Natural Foods,” would have the FDA define and regulate the term “natural” on food labels.

The USDA defines and regulates the use of “organic.”  There are only four legal ways in which “organic” can be used on food labels.

  1. 1.    “100% Organic” – All ingredients must be organic.  The USDA Organic seal may be used on the front of packaging, and all organic ingredients must be identified on the informational panel.
  2. 2.    “Organic” – 95% of the product’s ingredients must be organic.  The USDA organic seal may be used on the front of packaging, and all 95% organic ingredients must be identified on the informational panel.
  3. 3.    “Made with Organic _____” – At least 70% of the product’s ingredients must be organic.  The USDA organic seal may NOT be used. The blank space on label, must be specified.  For example, “made with organic vegetables.”  All 70% organic ingredients must be identified on the informational panel.
  4. 4.    Any product with less than 70% organic ingredients may NOT use the USDA organic seal, or the label “organic” anywhere on the label.  Only on the informational panel, may the word organic be used in listing organic ingredients used.

Is Organic more nutritious? 
Probably not, especially in regards to macronutrients.  More research is required in this arena.  Several studies did indicate organic products had:

  • ·         increased antioxidants, however, evidence is not clear if it’s the antioxidants or other components of fruit and vegetables that actually lower risk of diseases.
  • ·         lower pesticide residue, however, no significant research can indicate effects of residue, plus organic products may also have organic pesticide residue.
  • ·         higher nitrates, and some research show that crop-basednitrates may appear to be very beneficial, but nitrates that are converted to nitrosamines in meats may be harmful.

No one defines or regulates the term.  Most retail chains consider “locally grown” to be within state boundaries, or even a multistate region.  Most consumers consider “local” to be within state boundaries or a 100-mile radius.

  • ·         “Local” and “Organic” are not interchangeable.  In fact, there are only 5% of farms with local and organic sales.  Some practice organic growing methods, but have not been USDA certified.  Ask and get to know your farmer.
  • ·         Why local then?
    • o   better flavor, freshness, and ripeness
    • o   enhanced shelf life
    • o   supporting local agriculture and small business
    • ·         Find local farmers markets, CSA, farm-stands, and foods hubs near you.


  1. U.S. Department of Health and Human Services  website. Available at: http://www.hhs.gov/. Accessed November 29, 2015.
  2. U.S. Food and Drug Administration website. Available at: http://www.fda.gov/. Accessed October 25, 2015.
  3. United Stated Department of Agriculture website. Available at: http://www.usda.gov/wps/portal/usda/usdahome. Accessed December 8, 2015.
  4. Congress.gov website.  Available at: https://www.congress.gov/bill/114th-congress/house-bill/1599. Accessed December 8, 2015.
  5. Dangour, Alan D., et al. "Nutrition-related health effects of organic foods: a systematic review." The American journal of clinical nutrition 92.1 (2010): 203-210.
  6. Sobieralski K, Siwulski M, Sas-golak I. Nutritive and health-promoting value of organic vegetables. Acta Sci Pol Technol Aliment. 2013;12(1):113-23.
  7. Hoefkens, Christine, et al. "Consuming organic versus conventional vegetables: The effect on nutrient and contaminant intakes." Food and Chemical Toxicology 48.11 (2010): 3058-3066.
  8. Barański, Marcin, et al. "Higher antioxidant and lower cadmium concentrations and lower incidence of pesticide residues in organically grown crops: a systematic literature review and meta-analyses." British Journal of Nutrition112.05 (2014): 794-811.
  9. Sarah A. Low, et al. “Trends in U.S. Local and Regional Food Systems: A Report to Congress.” Administrative Publication No. (AP-068) 89 pp, January 2015
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Comments (1)

  1. brin1980

    Availability of good and healthy food items is a big problem now a days, mostly food companies mention that their products are 100% natural and hygienic but that is not true statement. I take guideline from this article to write my paper in good way.

    February 17, 2017