Finally, A Guide to What Those Food Labels Really Mean

If you’ve ever been confused by the shiny labels decorating the front of every package in the supermarket aisle, you’re not alone. Phrases like “all natural,” “grass fed” and “organic” catch our eye, but without proper research, we may not realize that those words may not actually mean what our eyes are telling our brains and stomachs they mean. Crafty wordplay and loose legislation have allowed words like “natural” to mean “well, kind of real, but with some preservatives and chemical ingredients,” while “free range” could very well translate as “locked up in a warehouse with one door leading to ten feet of grass that I never use.”

To help you weed through the greenwashing, Consumer Reports has launched an eco-labels page on its Greener Choices website. You can search and define the claims about not only food, but wood, personal care products and household cleaners. You can even search by certification logo, in case you don’t know what “Fish Wise” means (low contaminant levels, defined by color of label) or if “Certified Humane” seems a little confusing (growth hormones are prohibited; animals are raised on a diet without antibiotics, only used to treat the sick, among other qualifications).

The website also informs you whether the logos and certifications are required by law, or merely something the company is using to draw your attention to its product. For those interested in the history of each particular label, Consumer Reports goes that step further. For example, not only did I not know that “Bird Friendly” denoted shade-grown coffee, but that the program began at the Smithsonian Migratory Bird Center in conjunction with the National Zoo in 1999. So the site doubles as a great research resource to boot.

Most of us won’t go that deep into the pages. Obviously, the best way to eat is knowing your food source personally. If this is impossible, yet we still want to know if the food we’re eating is truly antibiotic free, humanely grown and organic, Greener Choices is the type of initiative that some corporations may disdain, but the rest of us will cherish.

Stay in touch with Derek on Twitter: @derekberes

Image: Food Additives