Food manufacturers are always excited to market their products with the variety of food labels and certifications in their arsenal – i.e., “gluten-free” and “organic.” Knowing what these terms really mean and what is required to use them will help you choose the product that’s right for you!
We’ll cover the main labels and certifications that are regulated by the FDA and USDA and we’ll also explain which claims are not regulated by these bodies – terms like “Natural,” “Vegan,” and “Raw.”
Many new products claim to be gluten free or avoid gluten ingredients. However, gluten-free usually requires testing and certification.
The FDA governs the regulation of the term “gluten-free”, as you can see in the link above. According to the FDA’s 2013 regulation, gluten-free means that a food contains fewer than 20 parts per million of gluten. Even if none of the ingredients have gluten, the risk of cross-contamination in processing requires most products to be tested to ensure this standard of 20 ppm is met.
However, the FDA does not actually endorse any 3rd party gluten-free certification, so it’s a somewhat self-policing label. While the FDA does not require testing, food companies are responsible for ensuring that any foods bearing a gluten-free claim meet the 20 ppm requirement.
There is also no official seal or logo or font to be used to identify a food as gluten-free so you will probably see many different labels on various products.
Organic is a USDA designation for products that meet certain requirements.
Organic products come from animals that aren’t given any antibiotics or growth hormones and plants that don’t use most conventional pesticides, fertilizers made with synthetic ingredients, bioengineering or radiation.
An official certifier has to inspect the farm or product to make sure these guidelines are followed. There are also standards for handling and processing and then, if approved, a product can use the organic seal.
Beyond that, there are a few different levels of organic claims that you may see on products:
- 100% Organic. Products that are completely organic or made of only organic ingredients.
- Organic. Products with at least 95% of their ingredients being organic.
- Made with Organic Ingredients. Products with at least 70% of their ingredients being certified organic.
However, even without an organic certification, various food products can identify which ingredients are organic via their ingredient list so keep an eye out for that when you’re inspecting a product’s label.
“Natural” is one of the least understood and most contested claims. Consumers associate it with something good, but there’s no formal definition from the FDA, or any association of food producers. The FDA requires labeling information to be “truthful and not misleading”, but do not mistake “natural” for always meaning that a product is healthy. You may want to take this label with a grain of salt (pun intended) when inspecting a food product.
“Natural” generally means being minimally processed and not containing added color, artificial flavor or synthetic substances. The USDA defines it, stating that “natural” meat, poultry, and egg products be minimally processed and contain no artificial ingredients. It does not, however, include any standards for farming practices. If using the label, a statement must accompany it explaining the meaning of the term (such as “no artificial ingredients; minimally processed”).
While the FDA hasn’t taken a stand, there have been a few cases in the courts. One company was forced into a multi-million dollar settlement for labeling their products as “natural” despite having GMO ingredients, artificial or synthetic ingredients. That can be taken as a guideline for what does and doesn’t define “natural” until the FDA and USDA take more a more formal approach on the matter.
“Natural” is not permitted in a product’s ingredient list except for in terms like “natural flavorings”.
“Vegan” has a relatively clear definition in the vegan and general community, but (like “natural”) does not have a formal definition from the FDA, USDA, or FTC for the purposes of labeling.
“Vegan” means the product doesn’t contain ingredients of animal origin, including milk, eggs, honey, and gelatin. Of course, meat, poultry and fish are not vegan either.
There are varying levels of veganism though, and you’ll sometimes see a product labeled as vegan, with a clarifying statement right below that might say “contains honey”, or something similar. That is acceptable in many eyes, since it is transparent and not misleading, but if you’re buying vegan due to a certain food allergy make sure you take a close look at all ingredients listed.
While not required, there are various labels and certification programs that food companies can abide by which are usually a bit more strict than the above definition of vegan, and may require that no animal testing has been done on any ingredients as well as some additional levels of scrutiny. If you’re a consumer that is conscious of animal testing, you may be more concerned with these certification programs, which are not associated with all “vegan” labels out there.
Raw is a fairly new term that we’ve been seeing on food labels and in food marketing in general. As it is so new, it is also not governed by the FDA or USDA, or any other body.
Raw foodists believe that you gain greater health and nutrition benefits from processing foods as minimally as possible. So, no pasteurization, and minimal heating and processing. On a more technical level, raw foods should not be heated above approximately 115 degrees.
UPDATE: With all the brands claiming to be raw, the industry has worked on creating standards for what that means. That initiative has been run by the International Center for Integrative Systems. Their project, Raw Food Certified, is offering certification for raw foods. Both websites offer more information on standards, certification, how it works, and more resources on the subject of raw foods.
Kosher foods have to be prepared from specific foods, by specific people and equipment, in a specific manner, and certified by one of many Kosher agencies.
However different Kosher certification agencies follow different standards, with some more and others less strict. Different certification and symbols mean different things so if it is important for you buy food products that receive a certain certification, make sure you’re looking closely at the fine print.
On a high level, kosher means that foods don’t use pork products, meat and dairy cannot be combined, slaughter must be performed in a specific manner, and food must be produced with kosher utensils and machinery that are not used to make non-kosher foods or used for both meat and dairy products.
GMO means “genetically modified organism”. Specifically, it means a plant or animal created through genetic engineering (combining genes from different species to create a new one) in a lab environment that goes beyond traditional crossbreeding.
This area is a highly controversial debate that we can’t get into here, but many people are concerned about GMO products and hence many food companies want to market their products as “Non-GMO”.
Organic products are prohibited from using GMOs, so if you buy a product that is organic it is also by definition a non-GMO product.
For a product to use a “Non-GMO Project Verified” seal, it has to be certified by the Non GMO Project. They will verify that each ingredient is non-GMO (with a 0.9% threshold, due to testing limitations) and perform annual audits.
That covers the most common certifications and food labels you will see in the supermarket. Of course, we could write a separate article on each one of these (we might!), but consider this an introduction. Hopefully you have more of an understanding of what these terms mean and what is required to use them.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Founder Lev Berlin was inspired to start ReciPal in 2011 while working on a project for SlantShack Jerky. The options available for generating nutrition facts labels and ingredient lists were very limited and usually expensive. After doing some research, Lev and his team discovered that a food lab analysis was not necessary and that there were public databases available online which allowed companies to do the math on their own and saw his opportunity to improve the process and to create a valuable tool for members of the food and nutrition community – ReciPal!
Now, you can make your own FDA approved nutrition fact labels for a reasonable price, without the struggle to figure out all the FDA’s rules.
Since they launched, ReciPal has expanded to recipe costing services to help food makers plan for pricing as well as their inventory management tool, which can be used to automatically update inventory and track ingredient usage.
Are you a food maker? Go ahead and build a recipe and leave the technical work to ReciPal!