The other day, I took a close look at all the different food certifications on supermarket package labels. There were seals denoting hormone-free, bird-friendly, Rainforest Alliance certified, wild-caught, certified humane, dolphin-safe, Soil Association certified and free-range (which apparently is different from animals who are allowed to roam freely).
Clearly, these stamps and seals are well-intended. Many people will argue that third-party certifications are a critical part of the sustainable food movement, attempting to inform and reassure a skeptical buying public. But I feel things have gotten a bit out of hand. As this story goes to press, there are more than 300 certifications in use.
When you really think about it, how does "grass fed" differ from "free range"? It's no wonder there's confusion, resentment (when you're expected to pay more for certain foods), and what I call "purchase paralysis" when it comes time to buy. Choice can be confounding, leaving shoppers stymied and sometimes apathetic.
With this in mind, let's look at some of the more common imprints you may see on packages and clarify what they mean.
The USDA's National Organic Program regulates the standards for agribusinesses that sell organically produced products. To use the coveted green and white organic seal, a product must be free from synthetic chemicals, additives, pesticides or genetically engineered substances. While that's federal law, criteria are under continuous scrutiny, and official rule-making is updated every five years.
At this time, there are different grades of organic labeling in the U.S.:
"100 Percent Organic" products must show an ingredient list, and the ingredients should be free from chemicals, additives, synthetics, pesticides or genetically engineered substances.
"USDA Organic" products must contain at least 95 percent organic ingredients, and the organic and non-organic ingredients in the product should be identified.
"Made With Organic" products must contain at least 70 percent organic ingredients, and the labels are subject to the same rules as "USDA Organic" products.
Although there is no legal U.S. definition for natural foods, there are numerous, informal definitions; however, manufacturers are realizing that the descriptor is ambiguous and have begun to remove it from labels. Research shows that while consumers want natural products, they are specifically looking for foods that have been minimally processed, allergen-free or without artificial ingredients.
Just like the term "natural," descriptions such as "antibiotic-free," "hormone-free," "free-range" and "free-roaming" don't have legal definitions, and their criteria were developed without public or industry input.
The terms "no antibiotics administered," "no hormones administered" and "raised without antibiotics" are supported by organizations that have a consistent methodology and clear conditions for their labeling, and they make their standards publicly available.
As for the hundreds of other certifications, the majority lack consistent meaning, and I will continue to question them. At the end of the day, certification is also a tactic food manufacturers use to strengthen market position, leverage positive publicity, increase customer loyalty, access new markets and support price premiums.
Tina Ruggiero, M.S., R.D., L.D., is a nutrition expert and award-winning author. Her new book, "The Truly Healthy Family Cookbook," will be available in August. Find Tina at www.TinaRuggiero.com.