Chapter from my Ebook, “Organic Food On A Budget: A Savvy Shopper’s Guide To Organic Food”- FREE

by Amy on May 7, 2013

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Does this symbol have any valid meaning? No!

Do you have trouble figuring out what all of those food label claims mean? Have you heard of “grass fed,” or “all natural,” or “fair trade?”

Here’s your guide:

Believe it or not there are several varieties of “organic food.”

1. First, and I think best, is “100% certified organic.”
2. Then there’s “organic,” which means 95% organic ingredients..
3. Next, it’s “Made with Organic,” at least 70% of the ingredients have to be organic.
4. Less than 70% organic ingredients, the label can simply list the organic ingredients.

The USDA is the newest player on the organic certifying field, but not one that I completely trust. They wanted to include sewage sludge as fertilizer, genetically engineered seeds, and irradiation to foods that carry the organic label. This was a huge departure from what consumers expected from an organic food product. Thankfully, public outcry stopped the USDA from being allowed to change the definition of organic foods, at least for now.

Here are the organic certifiers that I look for: Oregon Tilth, Northeast Organic Farming Association (NOFA), California Certified Organic Farmers (CCOF), Quality Assurance International, Maine Organic Farmers and Growers Association (MOFGA). There are others that are good; I just don’t see them on food here in the Northeast. Check them out here.

NOFA org

I’ve been very interested in Ayurvedic medicine. (Years ago I tried some of the products from the Maharishi Ayurvedic Center.) They’re perhaps best known for teaching and promoting transcendental meditation. Since 2002, they have had an organic certifying organization, Maharishi Vedic Organic Agriculture. I like what I’m seeing from this organization and would feel comfortable with their label, too.

Have you heard of Biodynamic farming? Some believe it goes well beyond organic farming. It was created by Rudolf Steiner (who also started the Waldorf schools). As I understand it, the basic idea is that a biodynamic farmer looks at what is going on in nature and works to heal the soil imbalances. They believe that the soil is alive and needs to be built up with compost and other natural soil amendments. Rudolf Steiner also believed that there should be just the right number of animals to provide manure for fertilizer, and that these animals should also be fed from the farm. The certifying agency is Demeter Certified Biodynamic.

Other Labels And What They Mean:

Local: while there’s no legal definition of local, the general consensus is that it’s food that’s grown within 100 miles of you. In fact there’s a whole movement of people striving to eat locally. They’re called “Locavores.” The word, locavore, is the 2007 Word Of the Year for the Oxford American Dictionary.

To learn more, go here:


Natural/All Natural: this can mean almost anything. It has no nutritional meaning and isn’t regulated by the FDA.

From the Consumer Reports Eco-labels center, the following labels are meaningless:

1. Hormone free: Here’s what the Consumer’s Union (CU) says about this one: “No antibiotics administered,” “antibiotic free,” and “raised without antibiotics” are general claims that imply that no antibiotics were used in the production of a food product. Use of the term “antibiotic free” is considered “non-approvable” by USDA and may not be used on any meat products. “No antibiotics administered” and “raised without antibiotics” are considered acceptable to use by the USDA. Although the USDA is accountable for proper use of these claims, there is no verification system in place.

2. “Fresh” (poultry): The CU says, “The “fresh” claim on poultry is barely meaningful and potentially deceptive to Consumers. Fresh is a general claim that implies a food product has not been frozen, processed or preserved. However, USDA rules allow chicken that has been labeled as fresh to be stored to temperatures as low as 24 degrees Fahrenheit (8 degrees below freezing). The Food and Drug Administration (FDA), which regulates the use of fresh on fruits and vegetables has a different and much better definition. The FDA defines fresh on these products as “a food that is raw, has never been frozen or heated, and contains no preservatives.”

3. “100% Vegan”: another meaningless claim that is supposed to indicate that the product does not contain any animal derived ingredients. This is tough to do in our modern era because “glue, tire rubber, photographic film, capsules, foods that use gelatin, and charcoal used to filter or process foods such as beer or sugar cane all come from animal sources,” according to the CU.


4. “100% Vegetarian Ingredients”: There is no legal definition or standard used for judging whether a consumer product is made with “100% vegetarian ingredients,” and no independent verification of this claim.

Somewhat Meaningful Labels:

1. “No Animal Byproducts:” There is currently no standard definition for this claim, but the specific meaning is quite clear: no ingredients are by-products from slaughtered or rendered animals.

2. ”No Animal Ingredients:” no standard definition, but intent is clear—no ingredients should come from animals.

3. “Grass Fed:” new rules from the USDA are in the works to create a “grass fed” label for beef. This means that the animal can only be fed grasses, hay and other non-grain vegetation. (They also cannot be fed any animal products. It’s shocking to me that animals that are by design vegetarians, such as cows, would be fed dead animals and blood, but that’s what happens on some conventional farms). Grass fed beef is supposed to contains higher levels of beneficial fats that may prevent heart disease and strengthen the immune system than meat from cattle raised on conventional farms. The one tricky thing with this though is that they are allowed to be grain finished for 90-120 days before slaughter, which kind of defeats the whole purpose of grass fed. Look for “Grass Finished“. I’m not sure I’ve seen that label though. I’ll have to look more carefully. Here’s more info on this issue.


Meaningful labels:

1. “Fair Trade Certified:” basically to ensure that a fair price is guaranteed to farmers in developing nations.

2. “Certified Organic:” For all the certifiers, go here:

Want more information? Watch/Listen to this Consumer Reports labeling expert, Dr. Urvashi Rangan, presented a keynote address at the The Harvard Food Law 2013 Forum on Food Labeling: Putting the Label on the Table.

Would you like the rest of the ebook?

Or, more information about the ebook? Go here. Are you hanging out with us on Green Living Now’s Facebook page?

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