Beyond the Buzzwords is a series that will break down some of the most recognizable yet opaque labels in American stores — such as “all-natural,” “cruelty-free,” “organic,” and “fair trade.” Every day, consumers are asked to navigate an ever-growing list of labels to maximize quality and get the best value, regardless of whether they’re buying anything from sundried tomatoes to sneakers. In this series, experts, producers, farmers, and retailers weigh in on which labels actually matter, so you can make better-informed decisions about what you buy.
Finding quality products isn’t necessarily as simple as trusting a label, and in many cases, it is far more complicated. From labels such as “organic” to “fair trade” to noisy marketing claims such as “all-natural” and “non-GMO,” it is hard to cut through the chatter. In this piece we break down what studies, certifications, and experts actually say about these labels, and how they impact what ends up on your plate.
The history of food labeling in the United States began in the late 19th century in response to a series of deadly outbreaks of foodborne illness. President Zachary Taylor, one of the most notable victims, died in office after drinking contaminated milk at a picnic in 1850.
The first legislation granting the federal government the authority to regulate food appeared in 1906, and in 1924, the Supreme Court, in a case involving “alleged Apple Cider Vinegar,” ruled that the Food and Drugs Act “condemns every statement, design, or device which may misdirect, or deceive, even if technically true.”
As consumers began to seek out more and more processed foods in the 1950s and 60s, the priority of food labeling regulation shifted away from merely preventing deception to actively requiring transparency. Labels were required to disclose a product’s contents and quantities on the package, especially if the product’s marketing made claims about the food’s “nutritional properties” or “usefulness in the daily diet.”
Later, American farmers interested in sustainable land management and organic farming practices organized to independently regulate each other’s use of the term. By the early 90s, the FDA assumed responsibility for organic certification, when Congress passed the Organic Foods Production Act, which required the Secretary of Agriculture to standardize organic farming practices across the country.
Throughout the late-90s and early 2000s the FDA continued to regulate the use of marketing claims and emerging “voluntary” label schemes (distinct from involuntary label requirements, like nutrition facts), including claims about how a product is raised or manufactured, such as that milk is from “grass-fed cows” or that chickens are raised without antibiotics. This guide will focus on demystifying “voluntary” labels, beginning with two of the most popular: “organic,” and “non-GMO.”
Put simply, “organic” goods are produced without the use of synthetic fertilizers and pesticides, or genetic engineering. In order for a product produced and distributed in the United States to carry an organic label, it must be certified “organic” by the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA). According to the USDA’s website, organic methods “integrate cultural, biological and mechanical practices that foster cycling of resources, promote ecological balance and conserve biodiversity.” The USDA works with private and public sector organizations to ensure certified farmers and producers adhere to the certification’s standards.
Genetically modified organisms, also known as GMOs or “bioengineered” products are plants, animals, or microorganisms that have been altered by genetic engineering. “Any time you say the word ‘GMO’ people really are shaken up,” said Ramu Govindasamy, an Associate Professor and the Chair of the Department of Agricultural, Food, and Resource Economics at Rutgers University. In essence, a GMO is an organism where one characteristic (or more) was altered by a change to that organism’s genes. This may be done to thwart pests, such as with the cotton plant. All bioengineered foods are regulated through the United States Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and are, according to the FDA, just as safe as non-GMO foods.
“If you ask a typical consumer, ‘Are you eating GMOs?’ they would say, ‘No, I’m not eating any GMOs.’” Govindasamy explained, “But, in reality they’re eating cornflakes and the corn, most corn are GMOs.”
There is no federal regulation requiring GMO foods to be labeled. And the adoption of a non-GMO label on many foods is purely for marketing purposes as the label is voluntary.
Farms and products may apply to get a non-GMO label from the Non-GMO Project, a third-party source that independently verifies if a product is GMO-free.
It is important to note that GMO or bioengineered foods cannot be organic. Organic standards stipulate that no genetic engineering may be used in any organic products. For example, a dairy farm that produce organic milk must feed their cows from organic pasture and on organic feed. If the cows are given a feed made from genetically modified corn, they would no longer be considered organic. Similarly, if an organic crop is planted next to a GMO crop, it is likely that cross-pollination would occur, and therefore the originally organic crop may no longer be organic.
“In most cases, there is no difference between organic and traditional food,” said Govindasamy. Nevertheless, the appeal of organic is strong enough that Wegmans owns their own organic farm, which is certified by the USDA for both growing and handling food. Many of their in-store products are sold with an “organic” label at a premium, usually between 15% and 20% more.
If consumers are concerned about ingesting harmful chemicals from conventional agriculture, but are also trying to save money, Govindasamy recommends prioritizing buying organic for fruits or vegetables that you eat whole or raw, and opting for conventional for anything you plan to cook thoroughly or peel.
Govindasamy, who works on primary surveys and modeling for consumer behavior when it comes to buying fruits and vegetables, used the Jersey Fresh label as an example. “Jersey Fresh” is added to New Jersey farmers’ produce to market the local appeal of their product. When it came to finding a quality product, Govindasamy suggested focusing less on organic and more on local eating. “Buying local serves a multipurpose, not only for the consumer who gets fresh produce but in food miles.” Food miles are the number of miles that food has to travel from farm to table. Food that has more food miles, like a strawberry grown in California and sold in New York, has a higher carbon footprint, was harvested earlier, and sat in storage for longer. Once produce is harvested, it begins to lose nutrients. “It’s a clear choice, definitely I would recommend buying local food than coming from other places,” Govindasamy urged.
Chef Aneesa Waheed of Tara Kitchen Tribecca uses beans, lentils, and other dry goods in her restaurants. She is anti-preservatives but doesn’t necessarily focus on organic options. “To me, what’s really really important is to have dry beans that we rehydrate and cook and produce in the restaurant ourselves.”
Studies have shown that rehydrating dry beans, rather than buying canned beans, results in a higher nutrient value. “For me,” Chef Aneesa explained, “we always bring in dry goods, then soak them overnight which is actually really good for the bean, then we cook them in the morning until they’re soft so that we can use them. That makes sure that we’re not using anything from a can that has preservatives or other chemicals and dyes added to it.”
A 2009 study from Louisiana State University Agricultural Center highlighted the nutrient benefits of dried (then rehydrated and cooked) beans compared to industrially canned beans: “Compared to canned beans, dried cooked beans were significantly more energy dense, contained more protein, fiber, iron, potassium, and magnesium; and less sodium than canned beans”
Dairy & Meat
Organic versus non-organic dairy can be quite different in quality. A 2021 report from Animals, a Switzerland-based journal, found that milk from organic farms “is more valuable, particularly in terms of the content of health-promoting compounds, such as vitamins, fatty acids, whey proteins, and minerals.” The study attributes these benefits to organic pasture-raising practices.
Milk labeled as from “grass-fed cows,” sold as “Grassmilk” at Wegmans, goes above and beyond the requirements of organic certification. Whereas USDA organic certification only requires that 30% of a cow’s diet come from organic-certified pasture, products labeled “grass-fed” are raised on 100% organic pasture. “Pasture-raised” is distinct from “grass-fed,” as cows predominantly raised in a pasture may still be fed grains in the colder months. All of these designations are regulated by the USDA and approved by the Food Safety Inspection Service (FSIS).
Sarah, a coffee shop manager now in marketing, swears by grass-fed milk, not just organic, in her daily latte. “Non-organic, regular, whole milk — the cheapest one — usually does not froth […] it just remains very flat. Organic whole milk, sometimes it will froth, sometimes it won’t.” Grass-fed milk gives the most consistent “beautiful” froth when she makes a latte at home, she says. Sarah is not alone. Some coffee shops around New York City, like Joe Coffee, only order organic milk to their stores.
Cows on organic farms are required to be “healthy” which can include giving them vitamins, and vaccines, but within extremely controlled amounts. Any organic milk that claims “no antibiotics” in their milk is redundant as no cow that has been treated with antibiotics is allowed to remain on an organic dairy farm or contribute to organic milk.
Cage-free, crate-free, not confined, free-roaming, pasture-fed, pasture-grown, meadow-raised, and pasture-raised are all claims that may appear on meat and dairy packaging. These claims are not defined by FSIS and therefore must be described on the packaging. The meanings of these are not standardized and can be changed. Keep in mind that with any food label, the wording matters. For example, “Organic” is the only way that organic can be written, not “produced with organic practices.” “Grass-fed,” means the animals are fed by 100% grass, and is the only word that means this, “grass-finished” is different.
The same standards that govern organic dairy cows also apply to cattle for slaughter. The levels of quality in beef are not as distinct between organic and non-organic, but rather between grain-fed and grass-fed. A 2010 review found that grass-fed beef (required to feed on pasture only, meaning these cows are also free range) is lower in total fat than grain-fed beef, and any fat in 100% grass-fed beef is less likely to raise your cholesterol.
In Europe, Australia, and many other parts of the world, eggs are not stored in a refrigerator but are shelf-stable for up to a month on a countertop. Between “cage-free” “free-range” “pasture-raised” and other egg designations, quality can be hard to determine. While organic can be added to any of these, it indicates simply that the farm needs organic hens and their diet be made up of organic-certified feed.
A small US-based study of eggs and egg production methods in 2020 found that each method had a slightly different quality. Some eggs had stickier yolks, bigger yolks, or larger eggs, but an overall matter of quality was not determined. Another study done in Turkey in 2016 found the same, that the “interior egg quality” indicators were similar between free-range eggs and eggs from hens in enriched cages (enriched cages are slightly larger than battery cages and allow more movement for the hens, but not by much). Though, hens in cages seem to produce more eggs.
Perhaps, the greatest factor in egg quality can be summarized by an analysis of egg production methods in Europe: “Alternative production systems have no impact on egg quality, a negative impact on performance, but meet the ethical needs of the consumer.”
Coffee might be among the products most associated with specialty label schemes, such as “fair trade” and “organic” certifications, but do these labels actually impact quality in the cup? Managing Director of Covoya Specialty Coffee Europe, Philip Schluter says, “yes” but not in the way one might think.
Schluter says coffee farmers in the developing world are often cash poor during the harvest season, so they will sell their harvest to the first trader to pass by, even if the hulled, unroasted, beans haven’t dried thoroughly. Unroasted beans are at their most stable when they’re reduced to 11-11.5% humidity, Schluter says, but desperate farmers may sell when their harvest is still as high as 20%, which could result in a “woody” flavor in the cup and a shorter shelf life. Organic-certified farmers, who know they will receive a premium for their harvest and often have guaranteed buyers, are more likely to let their beans dry longer, resulting in a more stable product.
Schluter is straightforward about the potential downsides of organic certifications, however. “I fear that the burden of certification often falls on the farmer,” he says. Achieving certification may require some farmers to significantly change their methods or update their infrastructure with limited resources, as well as take on paperwork and documentation obligations they may not have the time nor energy for. In some cases, organic certification may actually benefit the very poorest farmers, though, as many are already using organic practices and may not be able to access fertilizer or pesticides.
Bread and Wheat
Ben Lester is the founder of Pioneer Valley Heritage Grain Share, a CSA in Massachusetts that works with regional farms to bring together heirloom grains, wheat, and beans for participants. While he works hard to source certified-organic grains for the Heritage Grain Share, he also includes some non-certified farms. “Occasionally there’s someone who’s so small, but I know it’s organic because I know them personally and they tell me about their practices.” Lester emphasized that it doesn’t always make logistical or economic sense for a small farm to get an organic certification, and that his face-to-face relationship with farmers can communicate more than an organic label might.
In 2006, Scientific American reported there was “little to no difference” in nutritional value between organic and non-organic wheat. While storing dry wheat berries is better for the quality and longevity of wheat, the study concluded that “as for nourishment, wheat, apparently, is wheat—no matter how you grow it.” However, a 2015 study from the University of Michigan did find that non-organic bread was a more suitable environment for mold to grow on than organic bread, meaning organic bread may have a longer shelf life than non-organic bread.
Wheat berries, in whole form, are most of what members of the Heritage Grain Share look for, not pre-milled flour. According to Lester, this is because there is always going to be some amount of quality degradation post-milling, just as with coffee beans. Similar to buying whole-bean coffee instead of pre-ground, Lester recommends purchasing wheat berries and milling small quantities fresh at home, if customers are interested in the best possible results. At-home wheat mills are available as an attachment to a stand mixer, and some blenders and food processors can grind the berries as well.
Lester sources mostly heirloom varieties of wheat. Commercial flour comes from hard red wheat, consistently the most common variety of wheat throughout history. Even some of the heirloom varieties that the Heritage Grain Share offers are older varieties of hard red wheat, such as red lammas, red fife, and redeemer. Customers might expect that if they have been buying from an established, familiar, brand for many years, they are getting a consistent product. Lester says that that is not true. He points out that King Arthur Flour, for example, doesn’t use the same variety or buy from the same farms year-to-year. So even if the packaging remains exactly the same, the product inside could be quite different. Instead, Lester encourages exploring smaller-scale alternatives, where it is possible to trace exactly where the product came from, who grew it, and what varieties they used.
“As someone who really loves food,” Lester said excitedly, “the quality and the interest and the nuance that you get from small-scale local food systems is tremendous.”
As this is a report of findings and we are reporters, not scientists, we cannot give direct advice. However, in the interest of making all of this information more digestible, here are some of our key takeaways.
- With any food label, the wording matters. Any variation of labels are not verified by the USDA or governing agencies. “Organic” is the only way that organic can be written, not “organic practices.” “Grass-fed,” means the animals are fed by 100% grass, and is the only word that means this, “grass-finished” is a play on this term.
- Buying organic is good to help promote better farm practices that benefit the environment.
- In terms of quality, GMOs don’t have a particular designation. However, GMO products cannot be organic as organic practices do not allow any bioengineering.
- Buying local produce is the best way to maximize quality and reduce your carbon footprint.
- There is little nutritional difference between organic and non-organic produce.
- For dairy, organic denotes a higher quality product, with milk from 100% grass-fed cows being higher in quality than simply organic.
- Egg quality is not necessarily determined by the process of egg production.
- In dry goods, such as beans, and wheat, organic isn’t as important as low-processing is. Using dry beans and wheat berries will result in a higher-quality product.