Food Labels and Certifications . . . How to be an informed shopper

Updated: Oct 16, 2020

Organic, non-GMO, fairtrade, vegan . . . what do those other symbols mean?

Only through awareness of what each food certification symbol means can you choose the product that best aligns with your health care needs and beliefs.

Gluten Free When it comes to gluten intolerance, especially those with celiac disease, consumers have a fair amount of support from the FDA in requiring accurate labeling because gluten is considered an allergen. The FDA has made labeling “gluten-free” voluntary, but those who incorporate the gluten free symbol into their labels are, as of August 5, 2014, held to meeting certain requirements. Foods labeled as gluten-free cannot contain:

  • an ingredient that is a gluten-containing grain

  • an ingredient that is derived from a gluten-containing grain that has not been processed to remove gluten

  • a ingredient that is derived from a gluten-containing grain that has been processed to remove gluten if the use of that ingredient results in the presence of 20 parts per million or more in the food

  • wheat, rye, barley, or hybrids thereof

A food that bears the claim “no gluten,” “free of gluten,” or “without gluten” in its labeling and fails to meet the requirements for a “gluten-free” claim will be deemed misbranded. Furthermore, foods containing wheat as an ingredient that also bears the gluten free symbol must have additional language clarifying that the wheat has been processed to allow the food to meet FDA requirements. Similar standards have been implemented in the European Union and United Kingdom, which also holds gluten free labels to only be used on foods that contain less than 20 ppm. It is important to remember that a true “gluten-free” diet isn’t fully possible to attain without completely cutting out food groups, because even naturally gluten-free cereals such as rice can contain up to 20 ppm of gluten. The FDA does routine sampling and periodic inspections of food manufacturing facilities to ensure compliance with the gluten-free label. But keep in mind that meat, poultry, un-shelled eggs, distilled spirits and wines, and malted beverages made from barley or hops are not regulated.

Lactose Free

According to the National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases, 30 to 50 million Americans are lactose intolerant. For those that are avoiding lactose because they are unable to effectively digest the natural sugar found in milk and other dairy products, recognizing the label is critical for health and well being. The FDA does not provide a definition for the terms “lactose free” or “lactose-reduced.” This means that there is no FDA regulation for products that have this language, but legally manufacturers are required to label foods truthfully if they contain an allergen, such as dairy. Some companies hold themselves to an ethical standard, but the incentive for most companies to label appropriately comes from the Food Allergen Labeling and Consumer Protection Act (FALCPA), which became a law in 2004 and went into effect in January of 2006.

This act requires that foods must accurately identify on the label if they contain one of the eight major food allergens: milk, egg, fish, shellfish, tree nuts, wheat, peanuts, and soybeans. For those who are allergic to an element of dairy, such as the protein casein, “lactose-free” does not mean “dairy-free.” Many lactose-free products can contain dairy. For those with a dairy allergy, you will want to look for the dairy free symbol.

Lastly, keep in mind that the FDA only has control over packaged and conventional foods, vitamins and dietary supplements, infant formula and foods, and medical foods. This means that the FDA does not regulate or require labeling for allergens of fresh fruits and vegetables in their natural state, foods derived from highly refined oil, prescription drugs, over-the-counter drugs, personal care items (shampoos, cosmetics, etc), any food product regulated by the USDA (meat, poultry), alcohol or tobacco products, restaurant foods, fast food restaurant products, or pet foods and supplements. Vegan Going vegan has to be one of the hottest dietary trends right now, and for good reason. Veganism is one of the best ways to avoid harmful antibiotics from conventionally raised meat and it effectively supports animal rights and anti-animal cruelty movements by not buying or consuming anything made from animals.

For people wanting to make the switch to veganism for dietary or moral reasons, there have been a few organizations in North America and Europe who have designed icons for use on packaged food products or by restaurants and companies that produce vegan products. Some companies have also created their own vegan labels. However, since each group has its own guidelines for certifying a food product as vegan, it is hard to know which symbols are reliable. There are many varieties of vegan symbols from different companies–a somewhat comprehensive list can be found here–but the three most common vegan symbols, and their standards, are below: Natural Food Certifiers Vegan Symbol This symbol was developed by a private company, Natural Food Certifiers, Inc. in 1997 and offers organic, kosher, and vegan food certifications. Their vegan certification requires that products cannot have animal, fish, milk, egg, or other insect products or byproducts in foods. Any cross-contamination is also forbidden.