How to Decode Food Labels, Claims, and Certifications

Published November 4, 2019 by

The natural food and beverage market has been growing rapidly for several years according to trend reports, and it shows no signs of stopping. As the population becomes more educated on what a balanced diet looks like, conventional packaged foods are adapting and creating new products marketed towards “all-natural” diets. With that comes a lot of misleading labels and claims. 

Some logos and labels are certified, meaning they come from a third party organization that has a verification process in order to claim something. However, there are a lot of claims that do not require verification, and could potentially be false. Often times, non-certified labels are marketing-ploys and mean something very different from what most consumers would think, which is why GI Solutions of Illinois is offering a guide on how to decode each claim and what they mean.

Certified Labels

These labels are certified by the USDA, or a third party (typically a non-profit organization). There is a strict verification and approval process in order to use these logos on packing. Certified labels will typically have their own website in order to be transparent about their standards when it comes to verifying products. 

Vegan: In order to qualify for this label, the product cannot contain any animal products or by-products. This includes products that are sourced from leather, silk, fur, bone, shell, cashmere, etc. The product also cannot be tested on animals, and is officially certified through the Vegan Action/Vegan Awareness Foundation.

 Organic: The product must contain at least 95% organic ingredients without using synthetic growth hormones, antibiotics, pesticides, or irradiation (exposure to radiation). This certification is through the USDA and stems from the Organic Foods Production Act of 1990.


 Non-GMO: Products with a Non-GMO Project label must contain 0.9% or less of GMO ingredients. The Non-GMO Project is an organization that reviews ingredients, evaluates the facility, and runs annual audits on any product using their label. There are other Non-GMO certifications, but the Non-GMO Project is the most trustworthy and accredited logo.


 Fair Trade: This certification focuses on the conditions of the laborers that contributed to the finished product. Workers must receive fair wages, safe working conditions, and the right to join trade unions. Child labor or forced labor is prohibited. This logo is commonly found on coffee, tea, cocoa, honey, flowers, grains, cotton, etc.


 American Grassfed: A private label that certifies a 100% grass and forage diet from weaning until slaughter. The animals must be raised on an American family farm pasture without confinement. Antibiotics and hormones are prohibited. This label replaced the USDA’s grass-fed logo after the USDA withdrew their certification due to confusion around standards.


 Gluten-Free: Gluten is the storage proteins in common grains like wheat, rye, and barley. In order to be certified Gluten Free by the Gluten-Free Certification Organization, the product cannot have more than 10 ppm (parts per million) gluten. This translates to 0.001% gluten in any given food. The FDA defines Gluten Free as less than 20 ppm, meaning that the GFCO logo is more strict.


 Heart Healthy: This certification from the American Heart Association aims to encourage consumption of foods that are significantly lower in fat, cholesterol, and sodium. In order to qualify, foods cannot have caffeine additives, or partially hydrogenated oils.


 Whole Grain: The Whole Grains Council has 3 separate stamps of approval on foods that contain 100%, 50%+, or at least ½ serving of whole grains. The 50%+ stamp was introduced in 2016 in order to clarify whole grain levels in packaged foods. This stamp simply shows the level of whole grains, it does not involve anything with the processing or production of the grains.


 Animal Welfare Approved: The Animal Welfare Approved certification is the only USDA approved third-party animal welfare label. The label aims to promote family farmers who raise their animals on a pasture or range. The standards cover the treatment of animals during their entire lifetime, stating the animal must be able to behave as it would naturally.


Non-Certified Labels

In addition to certified labels, there are also many non-certified labels that can be used on food and beverage packaging. The main difference between the two is the verification process. Certified logos dictate that the product went through a rigorous verification process in order to use the seal. Non-certified logos may be valid claims, but there was no verification process by a third party in order to use it. However, the USDA is still accountable for the validity of the claims should anyone question them.

Often times, non-certified labels can be very misleading to the consumer. It is always best for individuals to research the accuracy of each claim on the packaged foods they purchase. Below are a few of the most commonly used phrases found on numerous product packages: 

  • Cage-free: Frequently on egg cartons, cage-free simply means the animal was outside of their cage for a period of time. Sadly, the hen is still confined to a very small space inside the hen house. Outdoor time is not required in order to make this claim.
  • Free-range: A little more humane than cage-free, free-range means hens are given access to the outdoors for at least 6 hours a day. This does not mean the hen actually spent 6 hours outside. The outdoor space doesn’t have to contain any living vegetation, and only has to be 2 feet wide.
  • Grass-fed: Without a USDA-sponsored grass-fed label, this could mean an animal was only given grass as feed for a short period of time. Hormones are allowed to be used, and grains can be used as supplemental feed.
  • Wild-Caught: This phrase simply means the fish was not farm raised, though it does not necessarily mean the environmental impact was any better. The term “wild-caught” can include various methods of catching fish like long line, trawl, hand lines, etc., which often times are more harmful to the environment. 
  • Pole and Line: If you see this label in the fish market, it means a pole and line caught fish individually. This is the most humane and environmentally friendly way to catch fish as there is no risk of bycatch or harm to the sea floor.
  • Long Line: The long line method entails a long fishing line (up to 10km) that contains thousands of baited fishing hooks set in place for hours to days at a time. This causes a lot of unwanted bycatch that ends up being wasted. Frequently this bycatch includes endangered species like turtles, sharks, whales, and even sea birds.
  • Trawl Caught: The most popular method for catching fish, trawl caught involves the use of massive nets that drag through the water or often on the seafloor. These nets wreck coral reefs and cause severe damage to the seafloor. This method is responsible for wasting the equivalent of 1 billion meals a year through unwanted bycatch.
  • Natural/All Natural/Farm Fresh: There is no regulation among these phrases and it’s a very broad label on food packaging. This is meant to note minimally processed foods, but frequently it’s a marketing gambit used to sell the product at a higher price point.

The biggest takeaway here is to understand and properly research the many claims that are frequently seen on packaging. Find what matters the most to you whether that’s organic, humanely-raised, environmentally friendly, all-natural, allergen-friendly, etc., and look for those certified labels. It’s worth the extra effort to know the truth about what’s in your food and how it was processed.

As always, if you have any further questions or would like to schedule an appointment with GI Solutions of Illinois, please call (773) 631-2728 or request an appointment online today!



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