Decoding Food Labels: Which Seals and Designations Really Matter?

Healthy foods are labeled with plenty of seals, certifications and stamps. We’re breaking down what those labels mean – and which matter.

Photo: -MG-/

Heading out the door? Read this article on the new Outside+ app available now on iOS devices for members! Download the app.

Pick up just about any item at a grocery store, and you’ll find a whole lot of labels touting its healthy benefits or special certifications. From packaged foods and snacks to fresh produce, just about everything is labeled. While you might be familiar with some of these labels, like organic, gluten-free, reduced sugar or fat-free, others can be confusing. Is it important to choose Free-to-Forage items? Does pasture-raised matter when it comes to meat? Should you bring home free-range or cage-free eggs?

While some food labels share important nutritional information, others tell you how your food was grown or produced. And some are more meaningful than others. Here are the labels you’ll want to pay particular attention to and which you can simply skip.

Look for these important seals, certifications and designations

The best food labels, certifications, seals or other markers are those that are backed by legitimate third-party organizations with set, standardized guidelines. They let you know that the items you’re buying meet certain standards or have been thoroughly vetted.

Whether you’re looking for organic foods or simply want to know that your food’s been held to humane standards, these are the labels you’ll want to keep in mind as you grocery shop.

USDA Organic

When it comes to organic foods, USDA Organic is the label you want to look for. In order to earn a USDA Organic label, a food must go through the USDA organic certification process, and they are grown and processed according to federal guidelines. 

A USDA Organic label means your food has been certified to grow in soil that included no prohibited substances – like synthetic fertilizers and pesticides – applied for at least three years prior to being harvested. It’s also certified to meet federal standards for organic soil quality, pest and weed control, and the use of any additives. 

When you see a USDA Organic label on meat, you can be confident in knowing that the animals were raised in living conditions that accommodate their natural behaviors, and that they were fed 100 percent organic feed or forage. If your meat carries this label, you can also trust that the animals weren’t given any antibiotics or hormones. 

Processed, packaged and multi-ingredient foods can also carry a USDA Organic label. This means that a food doesn’t contain artificial preservatives, colors or flavors; all of the ingredients are organic, with few exceptions. To earn the organic certification, packaged foods have to contain at least 70 percent organically produced ingredients. 

Non-GMO Project Verified

The Non-GMO Project Verified seal is one of the more rigorous certifications a food can earn. If a product carries this stamp of approval on its packaging, it’s been thoroughly vetted by the Non-GMO Project through a third-party verification process.

As the industry leader in non-GMO verification, the Non-GMO Project has been giving certain foods its seal since 2010. All foods must undergo an in-depth quality check and comprehensive evaluation to ensure that they aren’t genetically modified. With set standards and a lengthy verification process, the Non-GMO Project Verified label is one of the most trustworthy you’ll come across. And you’ll find products in just about every category, from breads to candies to dairy products to pet food, that carry this important label.

Certified Humane

A Certified Humane label isn’t about nutrition; instead, it’s meant to indicate items that follow the best practices for raising and slaughtering animals for food. In order to carry a Certified Humane label, foods must meet the standards of Humane Farm Animal Care, a nonprofit organization that monitors the treatment of farm animals used in food production. 

The Certified Humane label appears in three different ways:

  • Certified Humane Raised and Handled
  • Certified Humane Free Range
  • Certified Humane Pasture Raised

To earn any Certified Humane seal, a food product must meet the Humane Farm Animal Care’s standards of care, which are formulated in collaboration with animal scientists, veterinarians, and food producers. For example, a Certified Humane Free Range label means that animals have at least 2 square feet of space and be outdoors for at least six hours per day. These standards are also reviewed and updated annually, to ensure they take the latest guidance from experts into consideration.

If you’re concerned about animal welfare, this is a particularly important certification to look for. It’s endorsed by the ASPCA, which is quite stringent about humane treatment for animals. Certified Humane food labels are also endorsed by the Center for Food Safety, an organization that fights for more eco-friendly agriculture processes. 

The American Grassfed Association

Looking for grass-fed meat or animals that were free to forage while they were raised? You’ll want to keep an eye out for products that bear a certification label from the American Grassfed Association. 

In order to be certified by the AGA and carry an AGA Grassfed label, beef, pork and dairy producers must meet standards that include:

  • Feeding animals a 100 percent grass and forage diet 
  • Raising animals on pasture with no confinement
  • No antibiotics or added growth hormones
  • Animals must be born and raised on U.S. family farms.

And all products bearing the AGA’s label are evaluated and inspected by third-party agencies. 

Low Sodium

Plenty of foods carry a label boasting their low sodium content. While there’s no official or consistent seal for low-sodium foods, you can generally trust any low sodium label you come across.

In order to carry a low sodium label, food products can’t contain more than 140 milligrams of sodium per serving. That’s the U.S. government’s standard according to the Dietary Guidelines for Americans. You can also trust products that have a “very low sodium” label, as this means they contain 35 milligrams of sodium or less per serving. Just make sure to keep an eye on the serving size – low and very low sodium foods can still be high in sodium if you eat more than the recommended serving size.

Unsweetened or No Sugar Added

Looking for low-sugar foods? You’ll want to stick with items that are labeled “unsweetened” or “no sugar added” rather than anything promising low or no sugar. 

Technically, there is no official unsweetened or no sugar added label. These are both marketing terms – but they’re actually regulated by the FDA. These terms can only be used if they truly don’t feature added sugars. Foods labeled unsweetened or no sugar added means that no sugars or artificial sweeteners have been added into the food. It only contains naturally occurring sugars. 

While these foods aren’t completely free of natural sugars, you’ll be able to be confident that no additional sugars or sugar products have been added. 

And when it comes to assessing any food’s sugar content, you’ll want to make sure to take its ingredients into consideration. Even unsweetened and “no sugar added” food products can be high in sugar if they contain a lot of dates or other fruits. Though you can trust these labels, you’ll want to go one step further in order to make sure you’re getting the full picture of just how much sugar you’re about to consume.

Don’t be fooled by these labels

Some labels and seals aren’t as honest as they seem. In fact, some are nothing more than outright misleading – so make sure you keep an eye out for the following unregulated labels as you shop.

Natural or Organic

Most shoppers believe that foods bearing a “natural” label are actually organic – Consumer Reports found that shoppers believe natural implies a food is free of pesticides and antibiotics, and that it meets other organic standards. Unfortunately, foods that claim to be natural typically don’t offer any of these benefits.

The FDA doesn’t really regulate the use of the word “natural”, and food manufacturers are able to use it however they’d like. There’s no guarantee that any natural or organic food is free of unnatural, artificial ingredients or GMOs. And there’s no way to verify whether or not these foods have undergone any verification or certification process. 

The USDA Organic certification is the only organic label that matters. Any other food products that claim to be organic or natural likely don’t meet the USDA’s strict standards. And you should be wary of any natural labels, as there’s no way to vet whether or not they’re truly natural.

Pasture-Raise or Free-Range

While phrases like pasture-raised and free-range make it sound like food products are created in a humane way, they’re nothing more than unregulated terms. Typically found on cartons of eggs, these two statements are intended to imply the hens who produced the eggs were treated humanely.

However, pasture-raised doesn’t really mean anything at all. Technically, hens could have been raised in a pasture; they could’ve also been raised in cramped, inhumane conditions on a larger pasture. It doesn’t mean any particular standards have been met, and it isn’t a term that’s supported by third-party verification. Similarly, free-range is a claim that’s supposed to tell shoppers that hens were allowed to move around freely. Unfortunately, it also has no verification behind it.

Unless a food product carries a pasture-raised or free-range label along with a Certified Humane or Animal Welfare Approved stamp, you can’t trust that its claims are accurate. According to Eater, these two certifications are the only way to verify that the foods were produced with truly humane practices.

Reduced Sodium

While we mentioned above that low sodium is a great label to look for, you’re going to want to be skeptical if you spot “reduced sodium” labels on your packaged foods. It’s one of those labels that sounds healthier than it actually is.

The phrase is monitored and regulated – it’s supposed to be used only on foods that feature 25 percent less sodium than their full-sodium counterparts. For example, a bag of reduced sodium chips should contain 25 percent less sodium than the “full sodium” alternative. 

Unfortunately, there are no other requirements for the use of a reduced sodium label. These foods don’t have to be low in sodium; they also don’t have to contain a healthy amount of sodium, or the recommended daily total of 2,300 milligrams. As long as the item has less food than a saltier alternative, it’s all good to claim it offers reduced sodium.

So, a food that technically qualifies as reduced sodium could still pack a huge amount of sodium into every serving. These products likely offer way more sodium than you should actually eat each day. Make sure to check out the nutritional information to assess how much sodium you’ll really be getting in each serving.

Reduced Sugar

Like reduced sodium, a reduced sugar claim on any food is a red flag. This claim is held to the exact same FDA standards: as long as the food product contains 25 percent less sugar than the original, it’s free to claim it offers less sugar. Any food that meets this requirement can also use phrases or labels like “less sugar” or “low in sugar.”

This means that a reduced sugar food could still contain quite a lot of sugar. There’s no maximum amount of sugar or limitations present. So, you’ll want to double-check the nutrition label to know just how much sugar a single serving actually includes. 

It’s also important to keep sugar substitutes and additives in mind when you see the reduced sugar phrase on food. Frequently, food products that cut back on sugar add sugar substitutes in order to keep the sweetness. Reduced sugar products may not be as healthy as they appear to be at first glance.

What this means for you

Now that you know what some of the most common – and confusing – food labels mean, you’ll be better prepared to pick out healthy, humane foods the next time you’re at the grocery store. While plenty of foods are covered in certifications, seals and nutritional claims, only some are actually vetted and monitored to ensure they’re accurate.

The best way to approach food labels is to do your research. If you aren’t sure whether a claim or label is important, you can always do a quick search to find out what it means. While we’ve covered quite a few here, there are even more you’ll see when you’re shopping in-store or online. 

You can also stick to the labels you’re most familiar with. USDA Organic certification and Non-GMO Project Verified, for example, are two common labels. When you see these stamps of approval on certain foods, you’ll know you can trust their claims more than foods that don’t bear them. To learn more about decoding the different labels you’ll come across, keep reading:

Trending on Clean Eating

Show Your Liver Some Love: A Clean Eating Webinar

Join Clean Eating dietitians Tiffani Bachus and Erin Macdonald for an exclusive webinar all about liver health and wellness.