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

Updated: Oct 15, 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.

In order to gain this certification, businesses need to complete a seven-page application that requires certificates of analysis for each ingredient used and detailed product profile sheets. They also require food production methods and sanitation protocols, making their certification one of the most extensive.

Vegan Action Logo Initially, Vegan Action, a nonprofit, permitted free use of their logo on verified vegan products, but the growing demand for the label has caused an increase in administrative costs, prompting the company to require a licensing fee for companies that wish to use the symbol on their products. However, a 10 percent discount is given to companies that exclusively sell vegan products. Companies seeking this certifications must submit an ingredient list, description of processing and sanitation methods, supplier verification that bone char is not used to filter sugar, and that animal testing of ingredients or finished products is not occurring. Furthermore, no animal-derived GMO or genes can be used to manufacture ingredients or finished products. Companies must also assure Vegan Action that machinery was thoroughly cleaned between vegan and non-vegan product production. Vegan Society Trademark The Vegan Society is based in England and introduced its trademark label in 1990. The mark may be licensed to companies to use on certified vegan products. To use this symbol, the food product must be totally free of “animal involvement.” This includes animal derived ingredients or GMOs as well as animal testing.

Companies are required to submit a product declaration for each product they wish to have certified as well as an ingredient checklist containing items that cannot be used due to their animal involvement. The Vegan Society routinely contacts companies ingredient suppliers and questions them about the source of their ingredients, but does not carry out on-site inspections unless something deems it necessary.  Nickel Tested Few people realize just how dangerous nickel can be. Nickel occurs naturally at low levels throughout the environment and is an essential element in some animal species and may be an essential component to human nutrition. However, chronic, long-term contact or ingestion of high levels of nickel can cause nickel dermatitis, resulting in itching of the fingers, hands, and forearms as well as digestive issues, respiratory distress, and cancer. In fact, nickel refinery dust and nickel subsulfide is classified by the Environmental Protection Agency as a human carcinogen. Many people also have an allergy to nickel, and therefore must avoid jewelry, cosmetics, cookware, and other items that frequently use this compound. 

Nickel tested products are not necessarily nickel free. This label means that the product has a trace amount of nickel that is 10 times lower than the amount that generally triggers allergic reactions. The only information that I could find regarding regulation of this label is The Nickel Direction, which was a European Union directive that regulated the use of nickel several products, most prominently jewelry.  Fair Trade Products with a label that include the fair trade symbol, which is owned and licensed by Fairtrade International, have met the social, environmental, and economic standards set by fair trade. These are internationally agreed upon standards for farmers and workers that aim to improve their lives and communities. All around the world, conventional trade discriminates against the poorest, weakest producers. Fair trade gives those workers better positions, more control over their own lives, and sustainable livelihoods. Standards include protection of workers’ rights, environment, and payment.

Since it is considered one of the most trusted ethical marks in the world, Fairtrade International takes steps to make sure the logo is being used correctly and only by companies that have met the standards that can be found here. In order to use this symbol, prior written approval from Fairtrade International is required and can only be acquired after they check that standards have been met by farmers, workers, and companies that are part of a product supply chain. All of their standards work together to ensure that farmers and producers of key ingredients in the foods that companies produce every day are paid a living wage. There are over 1.65 million farmers and workers in the Fair trade system, and by buying fair trade products, you are ensuring that each of those workers have a decent working condition and are paid a living wage. Soil Association The soil association is a membership charity that supports healthy, humane, sustainable food, farming, and land use. The organization’s believe is that good food should be the easy choice for everyone, no matter where they reside. More than 6,000 businesses work with Soil Association and have their certification, which requires organic ingredients and farming standards that are free of harmful chemicals.

The Soil Association certified products in the food and drink, farming, beauty and well-being, fashion and textiles, forestry, and catering industries. Each industry has its own set strict of regulations and standards, all of which can be reviewed here.

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