TL;DR: Not all labels are created equal. We suggest ignoring Non-GMO, 100% Natural, and Grassfed labels because they don’t require producers to adhere to strict standards. Pay attention to the USDA Organic label, though, especially for fresh fruit and vegetables, but also for meat and dairy. It does require producers to adhere to rigorous standards. Fair Trade is relevant for worker treatment; Animal Welfare Approved is the best for animal products - Certified Humane isn’t bad either; and Seafood Watch has the best guides for food from the sea.
One reason for this gap is that it is hard to know what is sustainable and what is not. Food labels theoretically help consumers make informed decisions about what to purchase, but they can be difficult to navigate. We hope these guidelines will make your next trip to the grocery store a little less intimidating!
Labels to Ignore
GMO and Non-GMO: Almost all of our food is genetically modified, and it’s not necessarily “bad”
Genetically Modified Organisms, or GMOs, are largely accepted as a safe way to feed the growing world population and deliver essential nutrients to communities who otherwise would not have access to good food. About 90% of scientists believe GMOs are safe, and in 2016, over 100 Nobel laureates signed a letter to Greenpeace to “Quit the GMO-bashing.”
Nearly all the food we eat has been genetically modified. The label exists due to public pressure, not because the label indicates substantial health benefits. We suggest ignoring the non-GMO label.
100% Natural: Food products that are “natural” are not necessarily healthy or sustainable
For example, fruit drinks might be 100% Natural but laden with sugar and produced in a way that strips soil of essential nutrients for future agriculture. We suggest ignoring this label.
GrassFed: Grassfed animal products do not take the full production process into account
The Grassfed label applies primarily to cows, but you may see it on other meat products too. It does not take the full production process into account and therefore does not necessarily mean humane treatment of the animal.
We analyzed labels based on four markers: good for people, the planet, animals, and workers.
Good for people: These products are nutritionally sound and produced without synthetic pesticides.
Good for the planet: These products produce less carbon emissions and have less negative impact on land and water resources.
Good for animals: These products are produced taking the full lifecycle of the animal into account (e.g. humane treatment, animal food, etc).
Good for workers: These products indicate positive worker health and quality of life (e.g. less exposure to pesticides and a liveable wage).
USDA Organic: Most important for produce, meat, and dairy (good for people, planet, animals, and workers)
USDA Organic means a product is free from synthetic pesticides, growth hormones, and antibiotics. It does not necessarily mean the product is healthy (organic heavy cream is still heavy cream), prevents climate change (organic heavy cream can cause nearly as many emissions as heavy cream), or that the producer kept strict ethical guidelines for animal products.
However, USDA Organic is one of the most important labels to look for because the products under this label are kept to rigorous standards that take steps to preserve the health of ecosystems and the farmers who harvest the food.
These products support all four categories in that it protects people, the planet, animals, and workers from harmful chemicals. However, USDA Organic does not account for fair worker wages, humane treatment of animals, or nutritious value. Look for other labels alongside USDA Organic to ensure your purchase aligns with your values.
Buying organic is especially important for the dirty dozen: strawberries, spinach, kale, nectarines, apples, grapes, peaches, cherries, pears, tomatoes, celery, potatoes, and hot peppers. Look for this label in the produce, dairy, and meat section (for meat and dairy, consider additional labels like “certified humane”).
Fair for Life or Fair Trade: Relevant for coffee and chocolate (good for workers)
Fair for Life products guarantee safe working conditions on farms and prohibit child labor and harassment (similar to Fair Trade). Producers place a premium price on these products to benefit the community from which they were developed and ensure farm workers not only receive a livable wage, but that their quality of life is good.
Look for the Fair for Life or Fair Trade label when you purchase coffee and chocolate to ensure your purchase helps improve the life of the farmers around the world.
Animal Welfare Approved and Certified Humane: Relevant for animal products like meat, eggs, and dairy (good for people and animals)
Animal Welfare Approved is the top rated animal welfare label: products with this label are from animals who live and graze outside, in pastures, away from pesticides. Look for this label in your meat and dairy section. These animal products are good for both animals and for you because an animal free from pesticides is a human free from pesticides.
Like Animal Welfare Approved, Certified Humane requires animals to live in comfortable conditions and without unnecessary inhumane practices, like docking pigs’ tails, for instance. However, Certified Humane is slightly lower than the Animal Welfare Approved label. In this case, for example, farmers still trim hen’s beaks to keep them from pecking one another to death; under the Animal Welfare Approved label, they likely would have enough space that trimming beaks would not be necessary.
Unfortunately, this does not mean all sea products are sustainable. For example, farm-raised shrimp creates wastewater that in turn wreck’s havoc on our ocean’s ecosystem. Ocean aquaculture, while not always bad, can negatively impact open water fishermen's ability to earn a living wage.
Seafood Watch labels help take human and planet health and worker wages into account. While you will not see these labels on your seafood at the grocery store, Seafood Watch provides consumer guidelines based on location to help you make better decisions.
Download the Seafood Watch Guide or App to choose seafood that is good for you, the planet, and workers.
Choosing food that’s healthy for you and the planet shouldn’t be as difficult as it is. Look for a combination of the labels above and consider eating more plants. Join a Joro plant-based eating challenge to transition to a planet-friendly diet.