Breaking down differences in food labels and certifications

By Jessica Schultz

Real talk, do you know where your food comes from?

No worries if you don’t. That’s exactly why this article focuses on why labels and certifications exist and how to interact with them. Because unfortunately not knowing where your food comes from is normal in the western world. However, it wasn’t always this way. Not long ago, perhaps in our grand parent’s generation, food was a combination of farming and the work we put in to give it a cooked transformation.

Then a series of shifts happened.

  1. Humans started using modern-day technology
  2. Entire households worked instead of taking care of the home.
  3. Suddenly people needed their food prepared for them, ready quickly, and cheap enough to continue buying.
  4. This mixed with an increasingly global world meant we now expected delicious food, from all corners of the world, brought to our doorsteps.
  5. Enter mass production and a massive opportunity for business.

It was sound economics — we’ll be able to produce and do more as a society if we streamline food production using technology. What we didn’t realize were the compromises.

At what expense does cheap, convenient, diversified food find its way to us?

At the expense of our knowledge of everything involved to produce our food? Unfortunately, yes. Suffice to say, food today is far from what our ancestors enjoyed. Most people today don’t know much about their food or how it gets from point a to points b, c, and d. All our demands of food have made for an especially confusing supply chain with a whole lot of mystery.

Where did it come from? How fresh is it? How was it made? Does it have anything on or in it that I wouldn’t want to eat? How do I know?

Luckily, there is positive news.

Transparency around food production shouldn’t be exclusive to farmers and as we, the consumers, continue demanding transparency it’s improving. These days we can at least read a label and look for a certification mark to access information about the products we buy. Labels are now a part of our everyday life and necessary just to know what we’re eating.

The food reality of anyone without a farming and food background, at this point in our existence, would either be mass confusion or mass apathy without labels and certifications. Yet, should we be holding labels and certifications so highly for helping us navigate a complicated food network? To answer this we need to understand the role each of them play. There’s a big difference between the two that’s supposed to benefit us, if we can just get some clarity.

What do labels and certifications do for us?

Now that is the million-dollar question. We don’t intuitively know. However, we’re still determined to know where our food comes from. We still expect our food to be produced fairly and humanely, be fit for our bodies, and come from reliable places. Yet we’re not the ones producing it. So, we put our faith in the corporations, governments, and occasional small businesses to provide information in a way we’ll understand.

That’s where trust is key. If these labels and certifications are going to help us make informed food choices, and answer the essential questions we have, we must trust them. Unfortunately, there is a lot of unnecessary bureaucracy that makes these choices overcomplicated for the average person. The Eco-Label Index has over 200 types of labels.

How does anyone decide what to believe?

Particularly in an age when branding and packaging is ever-present and the number of labels and certifications are only increasing. And 200 labels is only referring to the United States! When trying to digest all this, you’re probably thinking:

Do we need to understand the implications of labels? Are all labels and certifications beneficial? Should we be paying more for them? Are certifications and labels even worth paying attention to?

These are questions we must each decide on our own, but doesn’t mean there isn’t an easier way to think about them. Let’s start with food.

What is a food label?

Based on the first Google definition you’ll find referencing the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), a U.S. food label is:

A panel found on a package of food which contains a variety of information about the nutritional value of the food item. There are many pieces of information which are standard on most food labels, including serving size, number of calories, grams of fat, included nutrients, and a list of ingredients.

E.g., that blaring label telling you how much fat you’re consuming with every serving size. However, that’s not what we’re looking at here. The labels we’re trying to understand aren’t certifications. They’re the same labels we see on eggs, meat, and poultry (e.g., “All natural”, “farm-raised”, etc.) that we think we understand, but do we?

In other words, a food label looks like…

These labels have a serious upward impact on the price point and bombard us on products from eggs and meat to coffee and chocolate. The Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) under the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) has an entire glossary just defining labeling terms here. And if you need a glossary, that STILL doesn’t define everything on the shelves, most people are confused! Here’s a look at the most common food label examples:

All Natural.

  • Does all natural mean animals running wild and eating what a wild animal would? Not exactly. Let’s talk chicken. All natural means the chicken still has its chicken look and taste qualities after processing and packaging. That chicken could be in a tiny cage. It could also be eating things that chicken diets aren’t meant to eat. As long as the company adds a disclaimer stating “No artificial ingredients; minimally processed” its USDA requirement to claim All Natural is fulfilled. With that said, if a product can’t claim all natural we can assume it has a fraction of the real food content an all natural product has. Think about it this way, how much chicken is really in that nugget?

Hormone Free.

  • Does no hormones mean an animal who never uses steroids to increase its production? Does it also mean it never takes drugs that could get passed on to humans? It’s complicated. Antibiotics and hormones are distinctive labels that follow separate regulations for birds, pigs, and cows. “Federal regulations prohibit the use of hormones” is the label you see for pigs and birds. So for these animals seeing nothing is the same thing since hormones aren’t allowed. However, growth hormones are common to increase a cow’s size and milk production. These do get passed on to humans, impact the cow, and alter the milk quality. The USDA only labels beef as hormone free if enough documention is available to prove it. The label no antibiotics can be used on all meat products after documentation is provided to the USDA.

Free range.

  • Does the term free range or free-roaming signify birds roaming wherever they please? Not quite. A majority of chickens, maybe as much as 99 percent according to, raised for meat come from a factory farm. So while free range does have the USDA requirement that the birds have a door granting them a choice to go outside, this doesn’t mean they use it or have space. They’re most likely still living in an industrially crammed bird house.

The difference a label makes in how free chickens are to roam:

Industrial egg production
Cage free egg production (door to the outside world)
Pasture-raised egg production

What is a food certification?

The definition given by the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) of the United Nations is: Certification is a procedure by which a third party gives written assurance that a product, process or service is in conformity with certain standards.

Or, certification is a way for a seller to communicate to a buyer that their organization is following a certain standard. For a shopper, it’s the best guarantee that your food went through a process you’re comfortable with. The certification itself exists because the effectiveness comes from an outside source providing assurance on the food and process.

Examples of coffee certifications

In other words…

Organizations who invest time and money working through a certification program (and it’s not cheap or easy!) get a little stamp on their stuff. Certification programs are either government regulated or created by an independent organization based on market need. The Non-GMO Project and United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) Organic Certification are independent and regulated certification examples. There’s definitely a reason for the methodology of every certifcation. Although the stringency needed for a certification to successfully push the market forward is hotly debated.

Organic is a great example of the certification process.

If you search for organic produce, you’re supporting companies who’ve decided it’s in their business’ best interest to be certified by:

  • Applying to get their farm, and every point of contact between the field and what the end-user purchases, inspected to comply with the National Organic Standard.
  • Then an inspector comes to visit all production areas a product goes through and report on practices. The inspector explains organic regulations but can’t provide advice, creating an independent third-party barrier. An inspector is a state, private, or foreign company who’s chosen to get accredited by the USDA. This is often 3 years!
  • After inspection, the report must be verified according to the USDA certification by the inspector’s company. If verified the organization pays a fee and receives their certification.
  • Finally, not done! Every operation must renew their certification each year.

Basically, certifications are intensive. If you’re buying according to a certification label that means you’re choosing a brand committed to investing in their food and maintaining the standard.

Are you with me now? It’s confusing, but labels and certifications matter.

The creation of certifications happened to give buyers more transparency as to what they’re buying. The certification process is stringent, but exists for the benefit of the end-user. Whereas labels are meant to educate buyers and regulate businesses, but it’s often far from it. Because most of us don’t understand the difference between certifications and labels, some food manufacturers take full advantage of our confusion. Others take the opportunity to educate us with their marketing.

To put it another way, the question of relevance is up to your interpretation. It’s hard to prove whether we’d be better or worse off without labels and certifications. However, we can say for certain the two are NOT the same. Since we’re in a food system where it feels impossible to understand what you’re eating, food certifications and labels are here to stay. So, next time you’re spending your time trying to cut through the mess of labels and certs, do your due diligence. Consider what that symbol really means for the animal’s well-being and your own.

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