Food labels + certification icons: what they mean and why they’re important

Taking a trip to the grocery store these days can be a little confusing if you’re unfamiliar with food labels and certifications. Too often have I heard the common “But it’s non GMO and free range!” in reference to something being healthy so I figured I’d take a moment to clarify exactly what those things means.

Now, I do want to say that I am in no way judging what you eat or sitting on a high “health food” horse. My goal is to help simplify your transition to healthier living and provide you with information that allows you to make informed decisions. Today I’ve whipped up a quick breakdown of common icons and labels we’ve come across at some point or another to help bring more understanding to what they represent. From ingredients to initiatives, these logos help to serve as a quick indication about what’s inside a package and the company values behind it. After all, some of these guys are pretty important!

*disclaimer: Some countries (including Europe) require/use different certifications for similar standards. The list below refers to the most common certification logos found in the U.S.

Also, it’s important to note that many of these certifications can also be found on cosmetics and clothing but I am solely focusing on the Agricultural standards relevant to food production.

Food Labels

Before we jump in to what popular certification logos mean we need to talk about common misleading labels first. A majority of people feel good about purchasing products that claim to be “Free Range” and “Hormone Free” etc. but what exactly do these things mean?

Pasture raised & Cage free: The idea of animals being “Pasture raised” and hens laying eggs outside of cages sounds great in theory but the reality is these conditions aren’t exactly what they seem. The USDA’s definition for both are vague and unclear leaving lots of room for unfair use of the terms. For example, an animal can be considered “Pasture raised” even if it only goes outside for a few minutes a day and a hen “Cage free” even though it’s crammed in a massive factory farm environment with only a “pop hole” to access outside (ie it’s whole body doesn’t fit through).

Antibiotic & Hormone free: Another common marketing scheme to mislead customers is the use of these two claims. An unknown fact to most people is that U.S Federal law actually prohibits the use of hormones in poultry and pork so anytime you see this on packaging it is purely a psychological attempt to persuade consumers to pay higher prices. Hormones are however, still allowed to be used in beef and dairy cattle. As for antibiotics, they are allowed to be administered to promote growth and treat sick animals. It’s also important to remember that both of these labels do nothing to describe the conditions in which the animals are raised and what they are being fed which ultimately ends up affecting you.

Certifications + Icons

USDA Organic

Ah yes, my favorite certification of them all – The U.S Department of Agriculture’s organic seal. In order for a company to legally use this logo it must meet specific annual requirements for it’s food/livestock that include:

  • Organic crops free from genetically modified organisms (GMOS).
  • Organic crops free from ionizing radiation.
  • Organic crops free from the use of pesticides, synthetic fertilizers and sewage sludge.
  • Livestock that is only fed organically grown feed and has not be treated with antibiotics or synthetic hormones.
  • Animals that have not be cloned.
  • Animals/Livestock that have access to outdoor pastures.
  • Contains at least 95% of organic ingredients (unless otherwise stating 100% on the packaging)

Some other important things to note:

Products that are labeled “made with organic ingredients” can range anywhere from 70%- 30% or less and should not be relied on as it may contain a lot of the exclusions above.

Farmers who make less than $5,000 a year in profit are not required to apply for organic certification.

QAI Organic Certification

Another common certified organic logo you may come across is one administered by Quality Assurance International (QAI). “Certified organic” means that a nonprofit, state or private certification organization, accredited by the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA), has verified that products labeled as “organic” meet strictly defined organic standards. QAI is an example of one of these institutions. It certifies to the same USDA guidelines and ensures all strict requirements are met under the NOP (National Organic Program).

Though the USDA organic logo is the most recognizable, certifications such as these are popular among smaller and mid sized companies as it is less expensive and rigorous to obtain a certification.

EcoCert Organic Certification

Ecocert is a European based organization offering organic certifications to over 80 countries making it one of the largest in the world. Ecocert ICO, accredited by the USDA, may certify each production and handling operation that produces or handles crops, livestock, livestock products, or other agricultural products intended to be labeled as “organic”.

Like QAI, Ecocert adheres to the USDA’s NOP standards when inspecting and approving applicant submissions. For certification continuation, companies must apply for updated inspections annually.

Non GMO

Non GMO labeling has become super popular and also causes the most confusion in my opinion. As stated directly from their site, “The Non-GMO Project is designed to honor the NOP’s excellent guidelines for traceability and segregation and build on the work that certified organic companies are already doing, with the added measure of ongoing testing of risk ingredients at critical control points.

Basically their program employs practices to ensure:

  • Testing of any at risk GMO ingredients.
  • Adherence to .09% GMO threshold.
  • Rigorous traceability and segregation practices.
  • Annual audits to maintain inspection for high risk products/crop.

While this is certainly a step in the right direction and better than food without the certification, it still doesn’t mean you’re in the clear. Any food that is not certified organic still hold’s a high risk of exposure to pesticides, synthetic fertilizers and other chemicals. This chart by Boston Organics is a great cheat sheet to understanding the differences between organic and non-GMO foods:

Certified Vegan

The Certified Vegan Logo is a registered trademark for products/food that do not contain any animal by products and have not been tested on animals. In order for a product to qualify for this certification it must:

  • Be free of any meat, fish, animal by products, eggs, fowl, milk, honey insects, insect byproducts (silk or dyes), bone char/gelatin.
  • Not be involve any testing of ingredients on animals during or after supply, production or manufacturing.
  • Not contain any animal derived GMO’s or genes to produce or manufacture the product.
  • Comply with an audit to prove that necessary steps are taken to ensure surfaces and equipment are sanitized to minimize cross contamination on shared machinery.

As mentioned with the USDA Organic label though, it’s still possible for a product to be vegan even though this logo isn’t present. The fastest way for me to check this (in addition to thoroughly reading the ingredient list) is to check the “CONTAINS:” section under it. If a product contains eggs, milk, soy, wheat or any other potential allergen it will be listed there and is a quick way to navigate through vegan/non vegan food.

Fair Trade Certified

Fair Trade USA is a nonprofit organization that focuses on the behind the scenes of the product you are purchasing. They are committed to helping promote a positive change for businesses, producers and consumers through environmental, social and economical ethics. This seal provides a real insight to the company you are supporting with your food purchase. As described on their site “ When you see a product with the Fair Trade Certified™ seal, you can be sure it was made according to rigorous social, environmental, and economic standards. We work closely on the ground with producers and certify transactions between companies and their suppliers to ensure that the people making Fair Trade Certified goods work in safe conditions, protect the environment, build sustainable livelihoods, and earn additional money to empower and uplift their communities.”

Companies who qualify for this seal meet the following criteria in 6 different modules compliant with Agriculture Production Standard (APS):

  • Empowerment
  • Fundamental Rights at Work
  • Wages, Working Conditions and Access to Services
  • Biodiversity, Ecosystem Function and Sustainable Practices
  • Tractability and Transparency
  • Internal Management Systems

Gluten Free Certified

The Gluten-Free Certification Organization (GFCO) is an industry program dedicated to providing certification services to producers of gluten free products through quality assessments and strict safety measures. The GFCO is a product of the Gluten Intolerance Group non-profit organization whose mission is to aid those with celiac or other gluten intolerant disorders find safe products to eat.

In order to qualify for the certification company’s plant’s must uphold the presence of gluten to 10 parts per million or less or .25 gluten containg grains per kilogram for whole grains. seeds. beans, pulses or legumes. To read the full certification body manual click here


I hope this list helps to simplify things a bit and as always feel free to shoot me any comments with questions!

Til next time,

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