These days, a trip to the grocery store can be overwhelming. Do you buy organic? Or are all-natural products just as good? What about chemical free?
The Food and Drug Administration has taken some steps to make food labeling clearer, but it’s easy to get misled by product labels. To become a more informed shopper, experts recommend doing research to learn what different terms and claims mean so you can better read labels while shopping.
To be labeled organic and bear the USDA certified organic seal, food and other products must be certified by a third-party agency that uses standards overseen by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, experts say.
What’s more, whether it’s a manufacturer or a farmer seeking the seal, the three-year transition to organic and the attainment of the USDA certification seal is rigorous. Use of toxic pesticides, synthetic fertilizers, antibiotics, synthetic hormones, genetic engineering and sewage sludge are prohibited, explains Janie Hoffman, founder and CEO of food company MammaChia and author of Chia Vitality.
But there is no standard for the natural label. A grower or manufacturer could include some or all of the components banned in organic products in an item and still stick ‘natural’ on the label, claims Alexis Baden-Mayer, political director of the Organic Consumers Organization.
The “natural” standards vary from manufacturer to manufacturer, adds Urvashi Rangan, executive director of food safety and sustainability at Consumer Reports. Products may contain a Natural Products Association (NPA) label but growers and manufacturers all do things a little differently.
“Used alone, the word natural means nothing,” cautions Baden-Mayer. If you’re buying natural, you have to look for more wording. Additional claims like non-GMO, no antibiotics administered, or no hormones help add some value to the label.
For example, Consumers Union recently filed complaints about caramel coloring. Meat labeled natural has no certifiable, enforceable standard to say there are no artificial colors or to reference how animals are raised or how they ate, Rangan claims. She also says the natural labels on meat could mean the animals have eaten all genetically-modified feed, and had their tails docked and trimmed. “That frankly falls short of consumer expectations.”
The variance in natural claims particularly muddies the water with personal care products where an organic rating has not been as clearly defined as it has been for food. For example, a product could be identified as “hypoallergenic” or “fragrance free” but minus the enforceable standards that come with organic, a manufacturer can use an undesirable chemical to mask a fragrant odor, explains Rangan. “Therefore, the label is not meaningful.”
But the USDA label is supported by the standards of the USDA National Organic Program (NOP) and means the product is either 100% or 95% organic, explains Rangan. You may also see other certification seals from organizations accredited by the USDA. “They are equally good and credible,” assures Rangan and many can be checked at Consumer Reports’ greener choice eco-labs site.
While not eligible to bear the USDA seal, a third category, “made with organic,” means the product must contain 70% certified organic ingredients and be produced using only those processes and methods outlined in NSF/ANSI 305. When manufacturers use the NSF label or the NSF ANSI 305 description, it is another important distinction for consumers looking for safe, high-quality personal care products, Evans says.
An American National Standard, NSF/ANSI 305, is a voluntary standard that defines labeling and marketing requirements for personal care products that bear the “contains organic ingredients” designation and contain 70% or more organic content, says Jessica Evans, NSF International standards director. While the remaining 30% of ingredients is non-organic, that 30% is vetted to ensure it doesn’t contain genetically modified organics, and ingredients derived from systems that use sewage sludge, irradiation, petrochemical derivatives or formaldehyde donors.
The standard does allow for limited chemical processes that are typical for personal care products but would not be allowed for food products. An example of this is the hydrogenation of oils used to increase shelf-stability and create the “waxy” feel in lotions and conditioners, Evans explains.
NSF/ANSI 305 certification is considered a best practice by the Organic Trade Association and is required by some retailers for personal care products that do not meet the National Organic Program standard for food-grade organic ingredients.
Consumers benefit when retailers do their due diligence on products, ingredients and sustainability standards related to quality and safety, and follow up by being transparent in the information and labeling they provide to customers, says Whole Foods global vice president of quality standards Margaret Wittenberg, who has worked closely with the USDA, the Organic Trade Association, the EPA, and the Marine Stewardship Council.
Retailers are also held accountable for their food and product displays. “It’s illegal to market conventional produce or products as organic,” says Baden-Mayer. Certifiers actually go onsite to make sure signs are hung by the appropriate section and bins are correctly labeled.
As the demand for healthier living grows, more retailers are entering the marketplace, touting increased organic offerings, education to support green and organic merchandising and other perks like convenience and economy.
For example, FreshDirect, a New York City-based retailer, says it maintains direct relationships with farmers many of whom have either converted or are planning to convert to organic. Larger chain grocery stores have also increased the amount of organic products on their shelves. Last month, discount giant Wal-Mart (WMT) announced their partnership with Wild Oats to sell new packaged organic food.
The Whole Picture
A top concern among shoppers looking to buy organic products is that they tend to be cost prohibitive.
But retail chain Sprouts’ Donna Egan says price combined with online- and in-store education attracts organic devotees along with mainstream consumers who want to learn more about the chain’s “healthy living for less” philosophy, initially with produce and then in other areas like meat and dairy.
Experts say the jury is still out on whether organics actually pull in bigger bucks. Some claim high prices have started to dip. To be successful, organic producers have to establish a price point that appeals to the masses, says Kelly Vlahakis-Hanks, executive vice president of Earth Friendly Products.
Here are some tips to bolster your healthy and green shopping IQ.
Know your labels. Learn what each term means to better identify good labels, but also the bad ones, advises Rangan. Identify what constitutes “just a lot of green noise.”
Not knowing where to start is one barrier to eating healthy, adds Egan.
Ask questions. Many stores “who walk the talk” arm their employees with product and industry knowledge that can help consumers make purchasing decisions and give explanations. Reach out to them while shopping, suggests Wittenberg. You’ll be exposed to new ideas and products.
Go mobile. There are many apps available to help consumers sort through and check labels in real-time while shopping to help make purchasing decisions.