Trust me, this post is ‘All Natural.’ Confused? Welcome to the world of misleading buzzwords that have made their way on to food labels on foods on grocery shelves most everywhere.

There are so many claims made by food producers now that industry-created standards are now outpacing the ability of regulatory agencies to even establish a transparent standard for each, let alone monitor them closely enough to ensure compliance. They have become diluted and often act more like buzzwords than guidance with transparent standards. The rise of third party certifiers, like the ones explored below, is a testament to this.

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Some of these industry buzzwords include ‘natural,’ ‘humane,’ ‘cruelty-free,’ ‘free-range,’ ‘cage-free,’ ‘crate-free’ and ‘grass-fed.’  All except for the first relate to animal products, but we should all still be concerned about the lack of oversight and downright silliness of these labels – especially ‘humane.’ Killing is not ‘humane.’ Stealing babies away from mothers for milk is not ‘humane.’ Crowding chickens wing to wing in a stifling building with a tiny door to go out should not constitute ‘cage-free’ or ‘free-range.’  Defining ‘natural’ is left by the USDA to producers to define on each of their products. What does ‘no artificial ingredients’ or ‘minimally processed’ mean in practice? Scary stuff.

Although I highly encourage you all to be as conscious as possible as to what or who you are supporting, let’s consider some standards and buzzwords that we CAN actually trust.

Certified Vegan

Products that carry the Certified Vegan logo are approved by The Vegan Awareness Foundation and must follow a strict set of verifiable requirements. More information can be found here. Although standards are high to receive this certification, there are not any boots on the ground monitoring compliance.

Non-GMO Project Verified

The only criterion here is self-explanatory. The Non-GMO Project contracts out with third parties to work with evaluating a product so at least there is a little more hands-on oversight. Critics point out that conventionally grown food that destroys habitats and livelihoods in addition to being heavily processed can still be verified as non-GMO. For more information please visit their site here.

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Certified Organic

Talking about USDA Organic is a tricky subject. Purists want organic to be the most sustainably produced food on the planet. But then again, many industries see organic as a ticket to higher profits. This has resulted in a weakening of organic standards and slower roll outs of requirements for improved growing techniques. You can still grow a huge monoculture field of soy beans that destroys prairie habitats and sell organic edamame or tofu. You just have to use ‘organically derived’ pesticide, herbicide, and fertilizer cocktails, try to prevent run-off and conserve soil a bit better. Check out more information here.

Taking a moderate view allows us to see that organic does stand for better practices. Does it need improvement? Yes, but at least it exists. Let’s keep fighting for a higher standard and re-brand conventional food as industrially modified.

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Certified Fair-Trade

Fair-Trade is also a touchy subject. Growers that have their products certified are typically given a higher than market value price for their product in exchange for promoting living wages, the development of community infrastructure, and better environmental standards. This has worked out great for some communities globally with people in developed countries paying more to support them. See here for more about Fair-Trade.

The problem is that this excludes many growers who cannot afford to meet the requirements of this certification. Increasingly coffee purchasers are looking to create more direct relationships with growers to give them a bigger piece of the market pie and help them to develop more sustainable production methods. This is called direct trade.

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Even still, the fair trade logo, if certified, can guarantee at least some standards that are better than you’d find without it..

When it comes to food label words and phrases, be conscious, do your research, and vote with your money for a more compassionate and sustainable food system be buying foods that carry buzzwords that actually mean something.

Image source: Non GMO Project

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