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Labels decoded

How do you know which labels you can really trust? Start with these 12, which have a clear purpose and process behind the certifications.

With an overwhelming number of health and environmental claims appearing on packages everywhere—from produce bins to the beauty aisle—it’s easy to feel lost in a sea of stamps and seals. How do you know which you can really trust? Start with these 12, which have a clear purpose and process behind the certifications.

Organic certifiers

Learn about three of the oldest, most trusted certifiers

USDA Certified Organic

Who’s behind it:

The USDA’s National Organic Program (NOP) (

What it means:

*Prohibits the use of GMOs, most conventional pesticides and herbicides, sewage sludge, antibiotics, growth hormones, and irradiation.

*Organic producers record procedures and maintain cropland free of prohibited substances for three years before earning the seal, which varies in price based on the certifier.

*The seal is permitted on commodities that are 100 percent organic or made with at least 95 percent organic ingredients. The USDA’s National List of Allowed and Prohibited Substances identifies synthetic substances that may be used and nonsynthetic substances that cannot be used in organic production and handling operations.

* For meat, poultry, dairy, and eggs to be USDA Certified Organic, animals must have been fed 100 percent organic feed; never given growth hormones or antibiotics; and not have been routinely confined. However, the NOP does not police animal treatment. Cloned animals or their offspring also cannot qualify for the seal.

Look for it on:

Produce, dairy, eggs, beef, poultry, organic body care products comprised of plant ingredients, wine, and processed or packaged foods.

Fair Trade Certified

Who’s behind it:

TransFair USA (, a nonprofit organization that certifies fair-trade products using the standards established and enforced by Fairtrade Labelling Organizations International (FLO)—a global network of 20 labeling initiatives.

What it means:

*Farmers and farm workers from 58 developing countries across Africa, Asia, and Latin America receive community-development premiums to be invested in projects such as health care, education, and organic certification.

*Farmers and workers work in fair and safe labor conditions, use environmentally sustainable methods, and partake in direct trade.

*TransFair USA is the leading third-party fair-trade certifier of food goods in the United States.

Look for it on:

Coffee, tea, herbs, cocoa and chocolate, fresh fruit, sugar, rice, flowers, honey, spices, and wine.

Whole Grain

Who’s behind it:

Whole Grains Council (, a nonprofit consumer advocacy group comprised of millers, manufacturers, scientists, and chefs.

What it means:

*The 100 percent stamp means that all grains used to make the product are “whole” (containing the germ, bran, and endosperm typically stripped during processing) and that one serving of the product contains 16 grams of whole grains.

*The basic stamp means one serving of the product contains at least 8 grams of whole grains and includes some refined grains.

*Grains certified “whole” include amaranth, barley, brown and colored rice, buckwheat, bulgur, corn and whole cornmeal, emmer, farro, kamut, millet, oatmeal and whole oats, popcorn, quinoa, sorghum, spelt, teff, triticale, whole rye, whole or cracked wheat, wheat berries, and wild rice.

Look for it on:

Grain-based products including bread, flour, cereal, cake, cookies, crackers, granola, soups, chips, energy bars, pretzels, popcorn, pasta, veggie burgers, and baking mixes.

Certified Biodynamic

Who’s behind it:

Demeter (, a nonprofit organization that has certified biodynamic food since 1985.

What it means:

*Farms don’t use synthetic pesticides and fertilizers.

*The certified product met the same 3-year transition requirement as the NOP for certified organic farming.

*The farm is managed as though it were a living organism, so the entire farm is certified biodynamic rather than just a particular crop.

*There is minimal product manipulation and the use of few imported materials.

*Demeter inspectors annually ensure products and farms meet the processing and farming standards required to use the terms Biodynamic, Demeter, and Demeter Certified Biodynamic.

Look for it on:

Produce, coffee, tea, cosmetics, personal care, meat, poultry, processed products, herbs, spices, and wine.

Certified Humane Raised and Handled

Who’s behind it:

Humane Farm Animal Care (, a nonprofit organization that uses the American Meat Institute Standards for certification.

What it means:

*Meat or animal products come from facilities that use responsible farm-animal practices, including providing animals with ample space and shelter, clean water, and hormone-free feed.

*Animals aren’t given antibiotics.

*Cages and crates are prohibited.

*The organization’s scientific committee writes the standards and inspectors conduct annual on-site inspections, including interviews, record reviews, observation and evaluation of operating procedures, and handling and slaughter inspections.

*The USDA’s Agricultural Marketing Service (AMS) Livestock and Seed Program verifies inspections.

Look for it on:

Meat, poultry, eggs, and dairy products.

Rainforest Alliance Certified

Who’s behind it:

Rainforest Alliance (, a nonprofit that develops and implements sustainable and socially responsible production standards in more than 60 countries.

What it means:

Production practices preserve healthy biodiversity and existing wildlife habitats. *Producers maintain natural shaded environments to protect wildlife and eliminate or reduce pesticide use to avoid damage to surrounding environments and communities.

*Workers have safe living and working conditions.

*Note: The entire product doesn’t have to be Rainforest Alliance Certified. The Rainforest Alliance requires single-ingredient products like coffee to contain at least 30 percent certified content and the package must indicate the percent (the product isn’t required to include this information if it contains 90 percent certified content).

Look for it on:

Coffee, bananas, cocoa, oranges, pineapples, flowers, and ferns.

MSC Certified

Who’s behind it:

The Marine Stewardship Council (, a member of The International Social and Environmental Accreditation and Labeling Alliance

What it means:

*The wild-capture fishery commits to maintaining the health and population of the fish and the ecosystem’s structure, productivity, and diversity.

*The fishery minimizes its environmental impact by limiting bycatch—marine animals unintentionally caught during fishing—and monitoring waste operations.

*MSC bases its requirements on the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organizations’ Code of Conduct for Responsible Fishing

*Accredited certifiers conduct MSC’s independent third-party assessments using 31 science-based performance indicators

], which are publicly available.

*The seal does not verify that fish are free of toxins like mercury.

Look for it on:

Wild-caught fish from the program’s 42 certified wild-capture fisheries worldwide

Certified Naturally Grown

Who’s behind it:

Certified Naturally Grown (, a nonprofit certification program catering to small-scale, direct-market farmers that don’t have the financial resources for USDA certification.

What it means:

*Certified Naturally Grown uses the USDA National Organic Program standards as its basis to certify products that are free of chemicals and GMOs.

*Farmers, rather than accredited organizations, conduct farm inspections.

*Nearly 500 farmers from 47 states have enrolled to use the Certified Naturally Grown label.

Look for it on:

Produce, meat, dairy, eggs, and honey.

Certified Vegan

Who’s behind it:

Vegan Action (, a nonprofit educational organization and certifier.

What it means:

*The food doesn’t contain animal-derived ingredients, including meat, dairy, eggs, honey, or gelatin.

*The manufacturing didn’t use animal materials or byproducts, including leather, fur, wool, down, and chemical products tested on animals.

*The product and its ingredients weren’t tested on animals.

*The Vegan Action administers an application process and reviews product ingredients.

Look for it on:

Food, clothing, and cosmetics.

Certified Gluten-Free

Who’s behind it:

*Gluten-Free Certification Organization (, part of the nonprofit Gluten Intolerance Group.

What it means:

*The product contains less than 10-ppm gluten (or 5-ppm gliadin, one of two main gluten proteins).

*The product undergoes yearly certification based on ingredient reviews, on-site inspection, and product testing.

Look for it on:

Baking mixes, flours, cookies, cakes, crackers, snack bars, and supplements.

NSF Made with Organic

Who’s behind it:

NSF International (, a nonprofit organization providing natural products standards development, testing, inspections, certification, and education.

What it means:

*The product contains at least 70 percent National Organic Program–certified organic ingredients

*NSF allows the use chemical processes like saponification (processes that are typical for personal care products but may not be allowed for food products) to produce soaps, waxes, and essential oils as long as the raw ingredients involved in the chemical reaction are organic.

*NSF is accredited by the American National Standards Institute (, a leading watchdog organization for U.S. nongovernmental standards.

Look for it on:

Personal care products.

Natural Products Association Certified

Who’s behind it:

Natural Products Association (, a nonprofit organization founded in 1936, representing retailers, manufacturers, wholesalers, and distributors of natural products, including food, supplements, and health and beauty products.

What it means:

*The product contains 95 percent natural ingredients—ingredients from renewable/plentiful resources found in nature (flora, fauna, mineral).

*The product doesn’t contain petroleum compounds.

*Producers use minimal processing to keep ingredients close to their natural form.

*Third-party auditors review the manufacturers’ documentation and an Natural Products Association committee oversees usage of the seal.

Look for it on:

Personal care products.

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