You may not think twice about paying a premium for all natural or non-GMO products, but the reality is there is no standard regarding who can use these terms for most food products.
What is ‘all natural’ anyway?
The U.S. Department of Agriculture does regulate the term ‘natural,’ except for meat, poultry and egg products. Livestock products bearing this term must be minimally processed and contain no artificial ingredients.
However, according to the Food and Drug Administration, there is no definition of the term ‘natural’ when it comes to other food labels. That means those natural products you buy could contain added colors, artificial flavors and even synthetic ingredients.
Likewise, there is no regulation of the term non-GMO. The use of genetically modified organisms in food products is an area of some controversy, and ‘no-GMO’ labels have been popping up on everything from cereal to sauces but as of right now, there are no government standards regarding the use or verification of these claims.
Other food labels to watch
While the words ‘natural’ and ‘non-GMO’ are still being left up for interpretation, the USDA does regulate a handful of other terms.
Organic: The USDA maintains rigorous standards that must be met for foods to be certified organic. The certification process is administered by the National Organic Program, and products can only be certified organic if 95 percent of their content is organic. Some food labels might say they are made with organic ingredients and in these cases, the food likely has a mix of organic and conventional contents.
Free-range: Poultry that is free-range must have continuous access to the outdoors, but the USDA does not appear to define the how large an outdoor space is given to the birds nor the quality of the area.
Cage-free: Cage-free birds are similar to free-range in that they are given free-reign to move around a building or other enclosed area. However, there is no requirement that they be given access to the outdoors.
Pastured-raised or grass-fed: The USDA does not regulate the term pasture-raised, but it does say grass-fed animals must get the majority of their nutrients from grass during their lifetime. However, the grass-fed label is no guarantee that the animals won’t be given antibiotics or hormones or be fed grass sprayed with pesticides.
The future of food labeling
Although the government seems to be slow when it comes to taking action – there are news reports dating back to the last decade suggesting the FDA would or should consider defining the word ‘natural’ – private organizations seem to be stepping up to fill the gaps.
Fair Trade USA certifies fair trade products which send a larger portion of the profits back to farmers while Humane Farm Animal Care offers a Certified Humane designation for livestock products. Meanwhile, the Non-GMO Project offers an independent verification process to identify products without genetically modified ingredients.
In addition, companies may begin to self-regulate if legal action continues to be taken against companies that have questionable labels.
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