Reading and interpreting food labels is one of the best ways to make sure you're eating foods that are nutrient-dense and align with your values, but all the certifications and claims on packaging can make it difficult to know what's truly meaningful and what's just tricky marketing. Here are some of the more confusing or misleading words you might see on labels, how and if they're regulated, and what they mean.
(Note: This applies to US food label regulations only. Some companies that could qualify don't always choose to certify as it can be cost-prohibitive. It always helps to do your own research when you see a label claim since many are still unregulated!)
Seals and Certifications
One of the most reliable ways to know if a food company is truly following a set of third-party enforced standards is through seals and certifications. For example, foods that carry the seals for Certified Organic, Certified Gluten-Free, Certified Kosher, etc. must meet certain standards and typically have to re-certify annually. There are also dozens of newer dietary certifications such as Keto Certified, Paleo Certified, and Whole 30-Approved which can be helpful if you follow one of these lifestyles.
Think of the seals or the word "certified" as a grocery store shortcut - they help you quickly identify products that have met certain standards to suit your needs, but it's still worth doing your homework on the company and the certification process, especially because different certification agencies have different processes for achieving certification.
When it comes to packaged foods, this label means, well, nothing. Per the USDA, “Meat, poultry, and egg products labeled as “natural” must be minimally processed and contain no artificial ingredients. However, the natural label does not include any standards regarding farm practices and only applies to processing of meat and egg products. There are no standards or regulations for the labeling of natural food products if they do not contain meat or eggs.”
"Certified Naturally Grown," however, is an alternative to organic certification used by small farms that cannot justify the cost of organic certification.
This all goes to say that the word "natural" can be very misleading for consumers who are looking for a healthier product. Many people have called on the FDA to ban the use of this word on food labels, but until then, companies can use it freely. Look for other certifications on the label to back up this claim.
Organic is perhaps the most widely-known food labeling category, yet it's still sometimes challenging to understand exactly what the different labels mean. While the USDA does regulate the ways that the word "organic" can be used on labels, a Certified Organic seal is one of the quickest ways to ensure that an organic claim is trustworthy. Organic has a few sub-categories to be aware of:
- 100% organic: To use this label, the product must only contain organic ingredients.
- Organic: To use this label, the product must contain 95% or more organic ingredients.
- Made with Organic: To use this label, the product must contain 75% or more organic ingredients.
The USDA's National Organic Program does not have any restrictions regarding the use of other truthful labeling claims such as “no drugs or growth hormones used,” “free range” or “sustainably harvested” so trust these claims at your own risk. For more info on what qualifies as organic, check out the USDA website.
The Non-GMO Project is the only agency that certifies products as Non-GMO and this seal indicates that the product has gone through a strict verification process. However, the only foods in the US that are currently grown using GMOs are corn, soybeans, tomato, rapeseed, potato, canola, rice, papaya, beet, squash, apple, plum, sugar beet, and flax. So if you're buying a product that doesn't contain any of those ingredients, just know that (at least for now) it's automatically non-GMO.
No Added Sugar
No sugars were added during processing. There may be naturally-occurring sugars in the ingredients.
Contains less than 0.5g of sugar per serving - including naturally-occurring sugars from fruit or dairy. May still contain artificial sweeteners.
No sugars or artificial sweeteners were adding during processing. May still contain naturally-occurring sugars.
Fair trade standards in the US are enforced by Fair Trade USA, and companies must meet certain guidelines around fair wages, safe and equitable working conditions, and child labor in order to be certified. Crops must also be grown, produced and processed in a manner that supports social development, economic development and environmental development. Like Non-GMO, this label only applies to certain food products at this point: coffee, tea, cocoa, honey, bananas, juices, flowers, rice, spices and herbs, wine, fresh fruit and sugar.
Pasture Raised vs Cage-Free vs Free Range
Cage-Free: This is regulated by the USDA, but it literally just means that the hens do not live in cages. There's no regulation of how much space they're given, but if they also have a Humane Certification from HFAC, then it means they were given at least 1.5 sq ft each.
Free Range: This is also regulated by the USDA, but just means the hens were given "continuous access to the outdoors during the production cycle" and doesn't guarantee they ever actually stepped outside. Access to the outdoors can also be interpreted broadly, and could mean there are just a couple doors in the barn where hens could access a screened-in area with dirt or concrete. Along with a Humane Certification, it means they get at least 2 sq ft of outdoor space per bird.
Pasture-Raised: This term is totally unregulated by the USDA, but when paired with the Humane Certification, it means that each bird gets a whopping 108 sq ft of outdoor space per bird with access to a barn.
No Antibiotics Ever
When it comes to meat, eggs, poultry, and dairy, this USDA-regulated label means animals were produced completely without the use of antibiotics (and if it has the USDA seal, even better). But beware - "no antibiotics" doesn't mean the same thing! Many companies have phased out only growth-promoting antibiotics or "medically important" antibiotics (antibiotics that are also used by humans), but are still using other antibiotics to produce their products.
Ona's Labels Explained
When you look at an Ona cookie or bar label, here's what you're looking at:
- Ingredients with a "*" symbol are Certified Organic.
- Non-GMO Verified by Non-GMO Project
- Certified Paleo by Paleo Foundation (eight of our products are Paleo as indicated by the certification on their labels)
- Certified Gluten-Free: We follow a strict allergen protocol to ensure all products are gluten-free and grain-free.
- SCD & GAPS Friendly: This is not an officially regulated label, but simply indicates to those who follow SCD or GAPS diets that this snack fits the guidelines of the diet.
- Certified B Corporation: We meet the highest standards of verified social and environmental performance, public transparency, and legal accountability to balance profit and purpose
- Pollinator Partnership: A little reminder that a portion of each sale goes toward supporting Pollinator Partnership