Deciphering Organic Labeling

(Image credit: Apartment Therapy)

How do you tell what’s legitimate and what’s being greenwashed? It can be a challenge to navigate through all the buzz words and labels that appear to be healthier or less destructive to the planet. The fact is, greenwashing and buzz words are used to make consumers think the purchases they’re making are better for the environment than they actually might be.

As far as food is concerned, “organic,” doesn’t necessarily mean it’s healthier. How the food is handled makes all the difference in the world and there is room for error in both organic and conventional farming. And if you really want to be green, buying conventionally produced items from nearby rather than organic products that have been shipped from abroad can actually be the more eco-friendly option.

The USDA refers to organic labeling as a “marketing program,” as highlighted in this article by Samantha Miller on Big Think.

Keeping that in mind, here is a break-down of some common labels:

ORGANIC: “Organic food is produced without using most conventional pesticides; fertilizers made with synthetic ingredients or sewage sludge; bioengineering; or ionizing radiation,” according to the United States Department of Agriculture. Any item labeled organic must be made with at least 95 percent organically produced materials. However, this regulation doesn’t apply to personal-care products like shampoo or makeup, Deirdre Imus writes in her book, The Essential Green You!

100% ORGANIC: Contains only a single ingredient: fruit, vegetables, meat, dairy. Excludes water and salt.

USDA CERTIFIED ORGANIC: This label can only be used on meat and dairy products. The animals aren’t treated with hormones or antibiotics and must have access to the outdoors. They must be given organic feed, but doesn’t mean that they’re grass-fed.

MADE WITH ORGANIC INGREDIENTS: 70% of the ingredients are organic. The label can appear on the front of package, naming the specific organic ingredients.

CONTAINS ORGANIC INGREDIENTS: Made with less than 70% organic ingredients.

NATURAL or GREEN: Caution Will Robinson! There aren’t any federal regulations on these terms, so look carefully to avoid being deceived by greenwashing.

CERTIFIED HUMANE RAISED AND HANDLED: This label is bestowed by Humane Farm Animal Care, a non-profit group, on animal products that meet their criteria for animal welfare.

GRASS-FED or PASTURE-RAISED: These animals were raised in a grazing pasture.

CAGE FREE: This applies to chickens that weren’t housed in traditional wire cages. Although, there’s no way to tell if the birds had true access to fresh air and were free-roaming or were being housed in a crowded coop with a single, tiny window.