Label Lingo: Understanding Food Label Claims

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When you visit the grocery store to shop for your weekly meals, it is hard not to notice all the colorful labels that decorate most of our food options these days. We see terms like “organic,” “fair trade,” “all natural,” and many others, and sometimes they look quite similar. What do these labels actually mean, and how are they different from each other? Today we will learn how food labels can be useful for us to make informed purchasing decisions and select food that aligns with our values.

Why Use Labels and Brands?

Labels are useful marketing tools for food producers to communicate with consumers about how their products were raised, produced, or processed and to distinguish them from similar products. Labels might not be as important for farmers or ranchers who participate in direct-to-consumer sales, such as farmers’ markets or community supported agriculture (CSA) programs, as they can tell consumers about the practices they use. However, labels can provide an advantage at marketing locations where food producers are not present, like at supermarkets or retail stores. Some labels are associated with certifications, which verify that the food was produced based on standards concerning production practices and inputs that were used (ex. USDA Organic). However, not all labels are backed by certifications, so it comes down to us as consumers to be aware of the claims being made on the food we might choose to purchase.

Decoding Common Labels

There are many food labels out there, and extensive resources exist which review them, so we will only touch on a few common ones here. “USDA Organic” is a certification provided by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, applicable to both produce and livestock, that indicates that a food producer used farming practices and inputs that comply with national standards which support animal health and welfare and preserve natural resources and biodiversity. There are various requirements to be approved to use the USDA Organic Seal on products, and compliance with the National Organic Program standards is verified annually by aFood Labels third party certifier. Another term we see frequently on labels is “natural” or “all natural,” which describe food products that do not contain artificial ingredients or color additives and are minimally processed. It is important to note that while these terms have definitions from the USDA and FDA for the products they regulate respectively, verification by a third party is not required for use of these claims nor do the labels indicate how the produce or animal was grown or raised prior to finishing the food product. Our last term for today is “fair trade,” which is most commonly seen on products like coffee and chocolate and refers to agreements or standards that support farmers in third-world countries, such as by setting fair prices.

State or Regional Branding

Labels can also indicate the location where a product was grown, caught, or raised. The “Got to Be NC” label or brand is available through the NC Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services for North Carolina producers to help increase the visibility and market opportunities of their agricultural products both within and outside the US. There are also regional brands, including “Piedmont Grown” or “Appalachian Grown” which impart a distinct, unified identity to the products originating from farms located in those areas. Food hubs, or facilities which function to aggregate, store, process, and distribute local agricultural products also have their own labels that can indicate the regions they serve (ex. Sandhills Farm to Table, Feast Down East, etc.). The brand allows consumers to recognize where the food products come from and which farms they are supporting by purchasing those products.

Using Values to Inform Food Purchasing Decisions

As we have touched on today, labels can serve to provide us context as consumers to the products we are choosing to purchase. Labels can communicate how a food product was produced or raised, processed, where it came from, and what relationships exist between the farmers and the supply chain they provide to. By becoming more informed about the food we choose to purchase, we can use our purchasing power to support the values that resonate most with us and the change we want to see in our food systems. For more information on understanding food labels, standards, and certifications, please contact N.C. Cooperative Extension at the Lee County Center office and ask for Meredith Favre, our Local Foods Coordinator, for more information.


Got To Be NC

State & Regional Branding

What Does an “All Natural” Label Mean?

Natural and Organic Label Claims

National Organic Program