Food labeling 101: GMO, organic, and other common grocery labels decoded

Navigating the food labels at the grocery store these days can feel like reading through a legal brief.  Here’s a quick, easy guide to nine commonly seen (and misunderstood) terms, from GMO to 'organic' to 'grass-fed', so you can bypass the jargon and get back to the food. 

1.GMO

Protester Dan Walters of Boise joins around 100 people protesting the use of genetically modified organisms (GMO) gathered near the Boise, Idaho, office of Sen. Mike Crapo last summer. GMOs have been the subject of much legal wrangling, from intellectual property disputes to proposed laws requiring GMO food labels in supermarkets. (Darin Oswald/The Idaho Statesman/AP/File)

Definition: GMO stands for “genetically modified organism.” The term covers any living form whose genetic material has been altered through genetic engineering. In the food world, the term applies mostly to crops that have been grown with the objective of adding or eliminating certain characteristics – delayed ripening in tomatoes, for instance, or faster growth, nutrient resistance, or added nutrients. Done in a lab by injecting certain genes into a plant’s genome, genetic modification is a faster process than the selective breeding used by growers to develop certain characteristics in their crops.

Most GMOs aren’t consumed directly, though some are. The majority are commodity crops like soybeans and corn, which are later processed into a wide variety of foods. There are no genetically modified animals approved as food sources, though a GM salmon was nearing approval by the FDA late last year.  

What it means for you: That depends on who you ask. GMOs are broadly considered harmless from a health standpoint, but they come with their share of issues. Opponents argue that GMOs haven't been studied extensively enough to determine the effects, and are pushing for GMO food labels in supermarkets. Some grocers agree; Whole Foods will require all GMOs sold in its stores to be labeled as such by 2018.

Politically, the GMO issue has been a firestorm on both sides: In March, Congress passed H.R. 933, which included a rider that critics are calling the 'Monsanto Protection Act' because it protects food giants like Monsanto from liability in the event that GMOs are found to be harmful. The backlash to the rider was so intense that the chair of the Senate appropriations committee responsible for the bill apologized. In late April, Congress introduced a bill that would require labeling of GMO foods. Last year, 55 members of the senate and house called on the FDA to mandate GMO labels, to no avail. 

GMOs have also been the subject of intellectual property disputes. In February, agriculture giant Monsanto brought against soybean farmer Larry Bowman to the US Supreme Court, saying he violated patent laws by not using Monsanto-developed pesticide resistant seeds for his entire soybean crop. The case will be decided in June.

That said, the majority of the food you get at the grocery store aren’t GMOs.

Organic

Various kinds of organic tomatoes produced by Nesenkeag Farm in Litchfield, N.H. Organic foods are monitored and labeled by the USDA's National Organic Program. (Mary Knox Merrill /Staff/File)

Definition: Organic food is farmed the old-fashioned way, without synthetic pesticides or chemical fertilizers. Organic farmers have to be certified by the federal government and face strict regulations. In the United States, such farmers are regulated and certified by the National Organic Program, run by the US Department of Agriculture (USDA). 

What it means for you: Higher prices, for one. Organic foods are typically 10 to 40 percent more expensive than their conventionally grown counterparts. Proponents argue that you’re paying for better taste and peace of mind, knowing that your food is free of potentially harmful synthetic chemicals. But those claims are subject to debate. Studies have shown that organically grown fruits and vegetables have far lower rates of pesticide residue than conventional ones, but the actual health impact remains murky.

The question has also been raised over whether organic farming methods are linked to a higher incidence of food-borne illnesses like E. coli, but the evidence there is also in dispute.

Fair trade

A Fair Trade Certified logo. (PRNewsFoto/Green & Black's/FIle)

Definition: “Fair trade” is a designation that focuses on workers’ rights in developing countries. There is no set description; in general, products are certified by one of several international fair trade federations. Fair trade coffee, for instance, is meant to be less exploitative of small-scale farmers and to reduce the environmental impact of coffee farming. Certified fair trade factories prohibit child labor and try to ensure that workers are making a living wage.

What it means for you:  Best-case scenario, it means that the workers on the other end of the product you buy aren’t being exploited by Western companies. There has been much debate among economists about whether fair trade practices actually help those they intend to reach, or if the money gets too far diverted elsewhere. Because the fair trade designation extends to a wide variety of industries and companies can be certified by several different organizations, actual fair trade practices can vary. It’s best to research individual companies to see if you support their practices.  

Wild-caught vs. farm-raised

Farm-raised salmon from Canada is sold at New Deal Fish Market in Cambridge, Mass. (Mary Knox Merrill/Staff/FIle)

Definition: These two labels apply to seafood, and they’re fairly self-explanatory: wild-caught fish come from seas, rivers, and other natural bodies of water; farm-raised fish are raised in tanks, irrigation ditches, and ponds. There’s a bit of a gray area, too, in the form of fish hatcheries, where farm-raised fish are released into the wild for commercial fishing purposes.

What it means for you: Wild-caught fish are widely thought to be a healthier choice – they live longer lives and more diverse diets than farm raised fish. But they are a source of environmental concern. Some wild fish are caught using damaging techniques, including drift nets. Some are caught via less destructive means, like hand lines and cage traps.

Farm-raised fish, meanwhile, are generally cheaper, but can be less nutritious. According to the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), farm-raised salmon has higher fats and less protein than its wild-caught counterparts.

Regulators are still working out the kinks in fish labeling. A 2006 Consumer Reports study found that about half the salmon in supermarkets sold as “wild-caught” were frequently farm-raised. Recently, a survey from Oceana, a nonprofit ocean protection group, found that one-third of the fish bought between 2010 and 2012 were probably mislabeled.

But shoppers, take heart; the survey found that grocery stores were the vendors most likely to be selling fish with honest labels, and many are taking steps to address issues of sustainability and transparency. On the sustainability front, looking for the Marine Stewardship Council’s (MSC) label is a good place to start.  

Consumer Reports recommends asking plenty of questions at the counter: “Before deciding what fish to buy, ask the person behind the counter (or the server in a restaurant) which fish, if any, is in season, and where and how the fish was caught or farmed. Ask for the manager (or chef) if you aren't satisfied with the answers or want to learn more. Just letting the seller know that customers are interested might raise his or her consciousness about the seafood being sold.”

Conventionally grown

Vegetables are artfully displayed in the produce section at a Whole Foods Market in Boston. (John Nordell/Staff/File)

Definition: The opposite of organic. Conventionally grown fruits and vegetables use synthetic fertilizers and pesticides.

What it means for you: Again, it’s a matter of cost versus peace of mind, environmental outlook, and occasionally taste. Conventionally grown food is cheaper, and in many cases has been bred to last longer. But if you’ve ever tasted a fresh tomato, you know that the commercially grown varieties can be comparatively lacking in color and taste.

Grass-fed

Plates of grass-fed beef are served to guests at the dining hall on J Bar L Ranch last summer in the Centennial Valley, near Lakeview, Mont. (Ann Hermes/Staff/File)

Definition: A term applying mainly to beef and occasionally dairy, it means cattle that were raised on a diet consisting mainly of grass.  Commercial cattle are fed soybean meal, corn, and other grains. 

What it means for you: Grass-fed beef is leaner and considered healthier than beef that is fattened up on grains or soybeans. Grass-fed cattle also tend to come from smaller, less industrialized farms, and take about twice as long to fatten for market as conventional beef, and the expense gets passed along to the consumer. So it costs more, but you’re generally paying for beef raised in less cramped conditions with more nutritious diets.

That said, most cattle were “grass fed” at some point in their lives, and can be labeled as such even if they were mostly fed grain. For beef that was raised exclusively on grass, look for the American Grassfed label. 

Free-range

Eggs at Willamette Egg Farms in Canby, Ore. (Ross William Hamilton/The Oregonian/AP/File)

Definition: You’ll see this label on eggs and poultry. In conventional operations, chickens typically are raised indoors – either in grow-out houses (for broilers – chickens raised for meat) or battery cages (for egg-laying hens, although this practice is changing). The USDA requires that free-range chickens spend at least part of their time outdoors, but there is no unifying standard for the label beyond that. The terms can be confusing. Cage-free birds don't live in a cage, but they might not have access to the outdoors. Another common label for eggs is “barn roaming,” which applies to egg-laying chickens that are confined to a barn but not a small cage. Free-range has nothing to do with a chicken’s diet, so it might be fed conventionally grown feed and low levels of antibiotics, unless it's also certified organic.

The term also doesn’t regulate the size of those noncage spaces. Chickens can still be crowded into barns, and the outdoor space required for free range eggs doesn’t necessarily have to be large.

What it means for you: Eggs aren’t cost prohibitive to begin with, and many retailers already prohibit selling battery eggs. But a free-range label doesn’t necessarily equate to chickens roaming around freely (where, after all, they might be subject to predators).  

Natural

'Natural' is a common term on food packaging, but the use of the word isn't regulated in any sense, at least not yet. (PRNewsFoto/Cedarlane Natural Foods/File)

Definition: In the dictionary, “existing in or caused by nature.”

What it means for you: Absolutely nothing, yet. Food manufacturers can label anything from guacamole to Sun Chips “natural” without consequence, though some people are trying to change that. California’s Proposition 37, which failed to pass last year, would have prohibited genetically modified food from being labeled “natural.” The law’s downfall was its lack of specificity: almost all foods are modified by humans on some basic level, and opponents argued that enforcing such labeling restrictions state by state could get tricky.

That hasn’t stopped people from trying to hold food companies accountable. Shortly after Prop 37 was voted down, a Colorado woman sued Campbell’s, which manufactures “Goldfish” crackers, for marketing the fish-shaped orange snacks as “natural” when they contained genetically modified organisms, such as soy derivatives. 

Locally grown

Local, organic strawberries for sale at the Atlas Farm stand at the Copley Farmer's Market in Boston, Mass. The local food movement has grown as conscientious alternative to corporate-rin organics in recent years. Proponents argue that local food is fresher and better for the global environment. (Joanne Ciccarello/Staff/File)

Definition:  In general, “locally grown” applies to food grown on nearby farms – which, with no standardized distinction, can mean just about anything in terms of the actual distance. It could mean food grown within a 20-mile radius, or a 150-mile radius. The term might be better defined by what it isn’t – tomatoes shipped from California to Massachusetts, for instance, or citrus from South America.  The local food movement has grown prodigiously over the past decade or so, and its champions include bestselling authors Michael Pollan and Bill McKibben, among others. The movement developed as a conscientious alternative to organics, which have been largely co-opted by corporate farms in recent years.

What it means for you: Supporters of the local food movement argue that the food tastes better while supporting the local farming community and lessening the global food supply’s environmental impact. Food that has to travel farther uses more energy in fuel and refrigeration and generates more greenhouse gases, the logic goes.  Activists have even lobbied to have the number of “food miles” a product has travelled included on grocery store labels.

But skeptics argue that the energy argument may be stretch, because in certain instances locally grown food can require its own prodigious amount of energy. “A head of lettuce grown in Vermont may have less of an energy impact than the one shipped up from Chile,” Drake Bennett wrote in the Boston Globe in 2007. “But grow that Vermont lettuce late in the season in a heated greenhouse and its energy impact leapfrogs the imported option.”

 Plus, at certain times of the year, maintaining a locally grown diet can mean hugely limited food options in certain areas.  But a trip to the local farmers’ market can be great way to get fresh produce while supporting local farms.