How To Read Food Labels: Life Kit So many food labels proclaim their eco-virtues these days: organic, pasture raised, cage-free, non-GMO. But what is a label based on? Here are six ways to make sense of it all.
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How To Read Food Labels, From Free-Range To Fair Trade

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How To Read Food Labels, From Free-Range To Fair Trade

How To Read Food Labels, From Free-Range To Fair Trade

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  • <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
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Let's take a walk through the grocery store, past the boxes of cereal and the cartons of milk and eggs. And you know they're talking to us with labels that proclaim their virtues - organic, pasture raised, cage free, non-GMO.

I'm Dan Charles. I cover food and farming for NPR. And I'm wondering, what should I make of all these labels? A lot of you apparently have been wondering the same thing.

UNIDENTIFIED LISTENER #1: When it says organic, what does that really mean? When it says all-natural, what does that mean?

UNIDENTIFIED LISTENER #2: What does it mean if it's nongenetically modified? Is that better than some? Is it worse? Organic - like, are there different levels to it? It just seems like such a big, broad umbrella term.

CHARLES: I want to know the answers because it does matter how food's grown. Farming is connected to all kinds of environmental problems - pesticides, polluted rivers, disappearing habitat for wildlife. I don't want to make it worse. I want to do right by the chickens and cows. I want food that's healthy. But these labels - all-natural, sustainable, bird-friendly - experts agree it's a mess out there in the grocery store.

MATTHEW DILLON: I sometimes jokingly refer to it as the NASCARing of our food - that it's, like, you know, you walk into a grocery store, and instead of just seeing the brand logo, you see the brand logo and maybe five, six, seven, eight different logos that have suggestions of meaning.

CHARLES: Don't give up, though. We have answers. This is your LIFE KIT for understanding food labels - six things you need to know to translate the strange language that your food is speaking into plain facts. We'll tell you what the labels mean and which ones don't mean what you think they mean. Yes, those labels exist.

So another label - so non-GMO.

REBECCA THISTLETHWAITE: (Laughter) You hear my sigh.

CHARLES: And then, depending on what matters to you and if you have the cash, you can decide if these labels are worth your money. That's all coming up after the break.

We found some people who know firsthand what these labels mean. And by the way, we're not talking nutrition labels. We're talking ethical labels - ecolabels. First, we talked to Rebecca Thistlethwaite.

THISTLETHWAITE: You can call me Rebecca.

CHARLES: She manages a program at Oregon State University called the Niche Meat Processor Assistance Network. Basically, she works with young farmers, especially ones raising cattle or chickens - helps them figure out how to make a living at it. Sometimes that involves getting a certification so they can get one of those special ecolabels on their products. She's been a farmer herself. In fact, a couple of decades ago, there was a moment on a vegetable farm in Idaho that totally changed her life. It was freezing cold. They were digging carrots.

THISTLETHWAITE: Up until that point in my life - I was probably 23, 22 at that point - I'd never nourished another human being. And having that kind of power to actually feed people and nourish them with high-quality food - there was no looking back for me. I just - that was what I had to do for the rest of my life.

CHARLES: Another expert we're talking to - Matthew Dillon. He grew up on a farm in Nebraska.

DILLON: We raised cattle, and I sold sweet corn and tomatoes door to door as a kid.

CHARLES: Now he works for the company Clif Bar. He's the company's agricultural expert - still in Nebraska.

DILLON: I'm running the Omaha headquarters here.

CHARLES: Whoa, impressive.

DILLON: Well, it's a headquarters of one - me.


CHARLES: By the way, his first experience with organic carrots back in high school was not so inspiring.

DILLON: I thought, why are people paying for these hairy, kind of scabby-looking carrots? Like, these are nowhere near the quality of the produce that we grow on our little conventional farm - because this is back in 1981. And I think organic, back in the early days, had a real quality problem.

CHARLES: He took a fresh look at organic farming years later and changed his mind. For one thing, organic food's gotten better. But there's another reason, and it's connected to the very first thing you need to know about food labels - our first takeaway. You want to look for labels you can trust.

DILLON: When you're looking at labels, there's three things to ask. Is there really a clearly defined, tangible value - something specific? Is the label in the verification transparent? Can they get information behind the label? And then, are the standards and rules actually enforced?

CHARLES: Matthew says one label that meets those requirements is organic. By the way, we want to say upfront we know there's a price tag for organic. There is for a lot of labels that we're talking about in this episode. Maybe those things don't fit your budget. That's fine. We're not telling you what food you should buy. We're here to help you understand what you'd be paying for.

So I've got an organic tomato here. What makes it organic?

DILLON: So what makes a food organic is that the farmers, the processors, the manufacturers all comply with U.S. Department of Agriculture organic standards.

CHARLES: It is a massive set of rules.

DILLON: Doesn't allow synthetic fertilizer, doesn't allow the vast majority of pesticides and herbicides, doesn't allow genetic engineering.

CHARLES: So organic farmers use composted animal manure as fertilizer instead of nitrogen from a factory. They rotate their crops more often. They try to control insect pests and harmful fungi with natural predators or with chemicals that exist in nature, like copper.

DILLON: There's a couple of dozen different inputs that organic producers use that certainly have varying degrees of toxicity. But even something like copper sulfate - you know, I'll take that over a conventional fungicide.

CHARLES: All those rules mean that organic farming generally takes more work. And an organic field typically produces a little less food.

You know, are there any foods that basically nobody even tries to grow organically?

DILLON: I'll tell you our biggest challenge. And that is, without a doubt, macadamia nuts.

CHARLES: An infestation of stink bugs hit the macadamia nuts of Hawaii. Growers decided they couldn't stay organic. They had to roll out the pesticides to save their crops.

And for animals on organic farms, there are more rules. Cows have to be able to go outside and graze. Chickens and pigs are supposed to be able to go outside, too, although, honestly, that rule right now is pretty loose. Chickens on some of the biggest organic egg farms really don't get to go outside much.

The thing that really drives up the price of organic eggs and milk and meat, though, is the feed that they eat. Here's Rebecca Thistlethwaite.

THISTLETHWAITE: All of those animals - they spend their entire lifetime eating only certified organic foods, so whether that be grains or hay or pasture - so everything they consumed. And then, in the case of the four-legged species, their mothers, when they were gestating, actually had to be fed organically, as well.

CHARLES: This organic feed can be twice as expensive as regular feed. A lot of it's even imported from China and Latin America. But Matthew Dillon says the point is you can be pretty sure that organic farmers followed all these rules.

DILLON: These practices and standards are actually backed and enforced by a law that actually has teeth, that actually requires people to follow the rules or face consequences that can be both fiscal and even can include jail time.

CHARLES: So second takeaway - the organic label has a clear meaning, and the rules are enforced. There have been some cases of counterfeit organic food, but the USDA is trying to crack down on them. As for whether those rules actually make a difference in the world, there are some environmental benefits to organic food. Farming this way means fewer toxic and polluting chemicals - safer for farm workers. But there are some trade-offs. In organic production, it takes more land to produce the same amount of food.

Now, is the food actually better for you?

DILLON: I think it's the wrong motivation in purchasing organic food. And I think it's one of the things the organic community has done a bad job of - is that they have sold the proposition of, eat this because it's healthier for you and your family to avoid these pesticides. And while there may be some data that shows that there's some benefit, that's not what really is important to me. What's important to me is, how does it impact those farmworkers? How does it impact rural communities? What's the downstream impact on the people drinking water downstream from high-intensive agricultural production?

CHARLES: Matthew says that's where the real impact is. And for him, that's important enough.

So another label - so non-GMO.

THISTLETHWAITE: I'm going to say, offhand, that is probably my least favorite label.

CHARLES: Quick explanation - GMO means genetically modified organism. A handful of very widely grown crops, like corn, soybeans and sugar beets, have been genetically modified. New genes have been inserted in the laboratory. Most of these new genes make the crops easier to grow. The modified crops can tolerate herbicides that farmers use. The government's always said they're perfectly safe, but they're still controversial. Some consumers say, I just don't trust the companies behind those GMOs.

So non-GMO means this food is not made from those genetically modified crops. There's a whole system set up to verify those claims. But Rebecca and Matthew say the label's being used in misleading ways. It drives them crazy when they see it on things like mangoes and asparagus and cashews.

THISTLETHWAITE: There is no genetically engineered version of these crops, and yet, food manufacturers are still putting that label on it. And they're doing it to differentiate themselves, even though their product is exactly the same as everything else on the shelf. It's primarily a market-driven label that big industry really loves.

CHARLES: Food companies love the label, apparently because a lot of consumers think non-GMO means less pesticide spraying - a little bit like organic. But that's not what it means.

DILLON: So it creates a lot of confusion because if I'm a consumer and I walk into a natural food store, and I see non-GMO strawberries that are five bucks for a clamshell and the organic ones are $7.50, and I've got to watch my pocketbook, I'm going to buy those non-GMO ones because I think that means they weren't sprayed with X, Y and Z because that's what the marketing machine has said.

CHARLES: So you're saying, basically, non-GMO is conventional agriculture?

DILLON: It is. I mean, I grew up on a non-GMO farm, and we sprayed all kinds of - you know, we used atrazine, for example.

THISTLETHWAITE: It's not changing the world. It's not keeping toxins or chemicals out of our environment because non-GMO crops are still grown with synthetic pesticides and synthetic fertilizers and growth hormones and et cetera.

CHARLES: So you would not advise anybody to pay extra for non-GMO.

THISTLETHWAITE: No, I would not.

CHARLES: This is takeaway number four. You can look for the non-GMO label if you just care about avoiding genetically engineered ingredients, but you're not doing much for the environment or for anybody's health.

Now let's steer our grocery cart down the milk and egg aisle in the store. Boy, is it full of confusing labels, especially the eggs. And don't worry. We're not going to talk about every single label out there.

THISTLETHWAITE: When I saw an egg carton recently, it was hand-gathered (laughter), which - most eggs are hand-gathered, yes. So yeah (laughter).

CHARLES: Fortunately, we have Rebecca here to help.

THISTLETHWAITE: I should say I used to raise 5,000 laying hens on pasture, and it was also certified organic. So I know quite a bit about this.

CHARLES: So let's start with cage-free. What does it mean?

THISTLETHWAITE: Cage-free just means the chickens are not in individual cages, but they are typically inside a barn. So they're living on the floor of a barn. There may be some perches in there, but they're packed in pretty tightly.

CHARLES: You should not think of hens running around the countryside.

THISTLETHWAITE: No, not at all. Despite the packaging, they are not outside.

CHARLES: Free-range - I see that sometimes.

THISTLETHWAITE: OK. So free-range - according to the USDA, they are supposed to have some outdoor access. But you could have a large barn with a hundred thousand hens in it and just have a couple little doors. And, you know, you go visit that kind of farm, and there might be 30 hens outside that figured out how to climb out those doors and climb over all the other hens to get out there. So it's just, you know, a shade away from cage-free.

CHARLES: So basically, it sounds like free-range is pretty misleading.

THISTLETHWAITE: I believe so, yeah.

CHARLES: And then there's pasture-raised - what Rebecca used to do. That is a whole different deal.

THISTLETHWAITE: Now, if they're actually on pasture, and they have access to pasture, that typically means that you're having to rotate your birds around pasture because if you just leave them in one spot, they'll turn it to dirt.

CHARLES: That sounds really hard, actually - what you're describing.


CHARLES: Was it hard for you?

THISTLETHWAITE: Oh, we moved our birds every single day. There's different styles of hen houses, but ours were actually on wheels. There was perches inside of them, and then there were ramps that they could go up and down. And we had just hooked the trailer up to the back of our pickup truck and drove them to a new spot and then set up the electric fence around them so that predators couldn't get to them. Yeah.

CHARLES: I hope you got a lot of money for your eggs.

THISTLETHWAITE: (Laughter) Well, yes. They were probably the most expensive eggs in California, and I think some of your listeners would keel over if they heard the price that we were charging.

CHARLES: Will you tell us? How much was it?

THISTLETHWAITE: Well - and this was - you know, we sold our business in 2010, so this is several years back. We were charging $8 a dozen.

CHARLES: You might be asking right now, why would anybody buy such high-priced eggs? There's some evidence you'll get some extra vitamins from pasture-raised eggs because the chickens themselves are foraging - finding good things to eat. But the main reason, Rebecca says, is that the chickens are getting treated better.

THISTLETHWAITE: They're just, you know - they're sort of getting to express their natural behaviors more, so they're living a happier life, I would say.

CHARLES: Now, if you want to support this, beware of egg producers who are trying to get those high prices without actually doing the work. Look for the stamp of an organization that checks up on the farmers.

THISTLETHWAITE: It probably would be wise to look for that third-party certification. I think probably the most rigorous standards out there for that are Animal Welfare Approved.

CHARLES: This is actually the thing to remember when it comes to labels for a lot of animal products. There's eggs, but also beef or pork or milk. You see plenty of labels that promise better treatment of the animals. In beef, a big one is grass-fed, which means the animals never were confined in a feedlot. There's a certification for that.

THISTLETHWAITE: American Grassfed Association does a great job with that. So those two labels, I think, are probably the best for animal products - Animal Welfare Approved and American Grassfed Association.

CHARLES: In big chain supermarkets, though, you may not find those labels. In that case, Rebecca says, she'd go with organic. The organic animal welfare standards aren't perfect, but at least they're enforced.

Before we go on, just a few words about seafood. If you want to know which fish are endangered and which ones you can eat with a clear conscience, we have just one tip for you. Check Seafood Watch, which is run by the Monterey Bay Aquarium. They have a website - also, an app. They take each kind of fish and give it one of three grades - best choice, good alternative or avoid.

One last label to talk about - it's very different from the others - fair trade. You see it mostly on coffee or chocolate, sometimes on bananas. These are products that come from places where a lot of people are very poor. We called up another expert - Kim Elena Ionescu.

KIM ELENA IONESCU: I am the chief sustainability officer for the Specialty Coffee Association.

CHARLES: Kim's been a fair trade advocate since college.

IONESCU: I'd gone to fair trade demonstrations on the college campus, despite the fact that I didn't drink coffee and I didn't really know what fair trade meant.

CHARLES: But then she got into coffee totally by accident.

IONESCU: I wanted to be a publishing agent or something, and I thought that a good start would be to work at a bookstore. And a bookstore didn't hire me. And I walked next door, and there was a coffee shop that had just opened. And I talked to the barista, and she gave me a job.

CHARLES: She started drinking coffee - first, mocha. Now she takes it black, no sugar. For a while, she was the coffee buyer for Counter Culture Coffee in Durham, N.C. - traveled the world visiting coffee farms, some that were fair trade certified and some that weren't.

What you thought fair trade meant - did it turn out that fair trade actually meant that?

IONESCU: I don't remember in college what I thought that it meant. I just - I thought it meant better and - better for people. And I think that in that sense, in many ways, it did turn out to be true.

CHARLES: You see, fair trade does a couple of different things. It guarantees a minimum price to coffee producers. And most of the time, that's more than the market price. Right now, it's 30% more. But there's another part that's just as important, Kim says. For the most part, fair trade products are coming from small farmers who are organized into cooperatives.

IONESCU: The smallholder cooperative piece is really important, and it's really different than how a lot of other initiatives work.

CHARLES: Some of the extra money - that premium above-the-market price - goes to the cooperative. And members vote on how to spend it. It strengthens this community institution and actually gives people a little more power.

IONESCU: I think those are the two main points - is that you're strengthening smallholder farmer cooperatives, and there's a minimum price guaranteed, regardless of the volatility in the market.

CHARLES: And chances are you're making somebody's life better.

IONESCU: I hope so.

CHARLES: You don't sound so - super convinced.

IONESCU: Well, that's where I feel like the marketing piece gets tricky - when we overreach in order to feel good, when we say that fair trade lifts people out of poverty. And then it turns out that after 10 years of participating in a fair-trade cooperative, a family's still poor. Then the buyer of their coffee might feel like, wait a second. You told me that if I bought this product, it would lift them out of poverty, and it didn't happen. Poverty is so much more complicated than just a price for coffee. I mean, it's possible that that producer has a very small amount of land, and there is no price high enough to make that tiny plot of land a viable economic support system for the family.

CHARLES: So you feel like sometimes the labels kind of overpromise.

IONESCU: I think that they certainly did. You know, when people distrust certifications, I think it's partly because they feel like they thought it was going to do more.

CHARLES: In fact, we heard something similar from all of our experts, like Rebecca Thistlethwaite.

THISTLETHWAITE: Labels are - they're like Band-Aids. They're just superficial kind of feel-good solutions to systemic problems.

CHARLES: And this was practically the first thing that Matthew Dillon told us.

DILLON: Labels frustrate me - you know, feeling this responsibility to change the world with our shopping decisions.

CHARLES: Our shopping decisions won't change the world, he says, which may seem like a downer. But Matthew says, really, people walking around the grocery store should feel relieved.

DILLON: I think they should, first of all, understand that fixing the food system, improving the food system is not all on them, that they shouldn't feel guilt and shame about the purchases they make.

CHARLES: Focus on political decisions instead, like environmental regulations.

And that is our final takeaway, folks. If you want to protect the planet's soil and water and get rid of poverty, sure, buy that organic tomato. But don't leave it at that.

OK. We've covered a lot of ground here. Let's recap. Takeaway number one...

DILLON: When you're looking at labels, there's three things to ask.

CHARLES: Does this label mean something specific? Can you find out exactly what it means and how it works? And is it enforced?

Takeaway number two - one label that does fit the bill is organic.

DILLON: These practices and standards are actually backed and enforced by a law that actually has teeth.

CHARLES: Takeaway number three - non-GMO simply means it doesn't contain genetically modified ingredients - nothing else. It's not organic.

THISTLETHWAITE: It should be called the not-much-at-all label.

CHARLES: Takeaway number four - if you want to make sure your eggs or meat are coming from animals that are really treated well, look for independent certifications.

THISTLETHWAITE: Those two labels, I think, are probably the best for animal products - Animal Welfare Approved and American Grassfed Association.

CHARLES: For seafood, check out the Monterey Bay Aquarium's Seafood Watch.

Takeaway number five - fair trade delivers some extra money to small farmers and strengthens cooperatives.

And finally, putting your money where your heart is is great. But don't feel like it's up to you and your food purchases to solve every problem in the world.

For more LIFE KIT, check out our other episodes. We have a whole guide on getting out of debt - everything from picking the best debt reduction strategy to how to tackle overwhelming medical debt. You can find that and so much more at And while you're there, subscribe to our newsletter so you don't miss anything. We've got more guides coming out every month on all sorts of topics.

And as always, here's a completely random tip - this time, from LIFE KIT listener Samantha Mannas (ph).

SAMANTHA MANNAS: OK. Here's my cure for the hiccups. Get a full glass of water, and then put a paper towel over the entire top of the water glass. And then you drink the entire glass through the paper towel in one go. You might spill a little bit, but you got to drink the whole thing for it to work.

CHARLES: If you've got a good tip or want to suggest a topic, email us at

LIFE KIT is produced by Sylvie Douglis, Alissa Escarce, Chloee Weiner and Katie Monteleone. Meghan Keane is the managing producer. Our digital editor is Carol Ritchie, and our project coordinator is Clare Schneider. Special thanks to Jen Altschul (ph) - music by Nick DePrey and Bryan Gerhart. Neal Carruth is our general manager of podcasts, and the senior vice president of programming is Anya Grundmann. I'm Dan Charles. Thanks for listening.

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