Photo credit: lyzadanger/Creative Commons
Labels on food items are as numerous as the aisles they're sold in, and many proclaim that they're helping you be healthy, helping the planet, or both. The truth is that there are myriad labels out there that aren't worth the shiny sticker they're printed on; certifications that promise to be "all-something" or "whatever-free" that aren't under any government or third-party oversight, free to be molded and marketed by anyone who puts a product on a shelf.
You don't have to put up with that, though. Here are seven certifications that'll help guide you to green food enlightenment.
Image credit: Food Alliance
The Food Alliance brings together farmers, consumers, scientists, grocers, processors, distributors, farm worker representatives and environmentalists to certifies farmers for sustainable agriculture practices.
To earn certification, farms and ranches must meet standards for providing safe and fair working conditions; ensuring healthy and humane care for livestock; not adding hormones or non-therapeutic antibiotics; not genetically modifying crops or livestock; reducing pesticide use and toxicity; conserving soil and water resources; and protecting wildlife habitat. Farmers are required to set goals for continual improvement and sign an affidavit that genetically engineered crops are not used.
It covers a huge variety of foods -- fresh produce, frozen foods, meats, dairy, legumes, grains, and oils, to start -- and, unlike programs like the USDA organic certification, is focused on more holistic, system-level sustainability, rather than a huge list of things that aren't allowed. Feel secure when you pick up food with the Food Alliance certification, and learn more about the program from the Food Alliance.
Image credit: Demeter USA
Demeter USA is the only certification agent for Biodynamic farms, processors and products here in the United States (Demeter International handles Europe). When you see the biodynamic certification, you know that food has been produced with organic principles -- all biodynamic farms have to be certified organic -- but it goes beyond that, to all phases of production.
Biodynamic agriculture began in 1928 as a result of an Austrian based Anthroposophical movement, a "spiritual science" and incorporates ideas like cosmic rhythm (that is, the timing of the sun and moon phases), living soil, and consumer connection with farmers. While some of that can sound a little new-agey for some, biodynamic foods really take the whole food system into account; biodynamic farms devote 10% of their farm land to biodiversity, for example.
You'll find fresh fruits and veggies, dairy, meat, and wine with the biodynamic label on it, and you'll know that it's really pretty green when you see it. Learn more from the Biodynamic Farming and Gardening Association and Demeter USA.
Image credit: Smithsonian Migratory Bird Center
The Smithsonian Migratory Bird Center (SMBC) combines a variety of coffee labeling processes, like certified organic, and shade grown, to create a comprehensive checklist for sourcing green coffee. The goal of the program is to foster conditions on coffee plantations that provide good bird habitats; since that means much more than just keeping a few trees around, a lot of animal- and plant biodiversity is included. Things like maintenance of the tree canopy, diversity in tree and plant species, shade at specific times of the day, and establishment of plant borders around streams or rivers are all included into the Bird Friendly label criteria.
It only covers coffee, but, as the second-most traded commodity in the world, it's important that our coffee comes from a healthy place; Bird Friendly helps that happen. Learn more from the Smithsonian Migratory Bird Center.
Image credit: TransFair USA
Just about everything that an environmentally focused certification does for the planet, Fair Trade certification does for people. The standard aims to provide, safe, healthy, sustainable working conditions for farmers and farm workers; the standards aim to ensure that farmers and farm workers in developing nations receive a fair price for their product; have direct trade relations with buyers and access to credit; and encourage sustainable farming methods, without the use of a dozen of the most harmful pesticides, and forced child labor.
To earn the label, products must be grown by small-scale producers democratically organized in either cooperatives or unions. In order to use the Fair Trade Certified label, the buyer must also be willing to pay up to 60 percent of the purchase in advance for some products, including coffee, tea and cocoa, with added premiums for social development projects, including health care, educational and capacity-building projects that can improve quality of life for farming communities.
You'll see the Fair Trade certification on coffee, tea, tropical fruits (bananas, pineapples, and mangoes, for example), rice, sugar, and chocolate products like cocoa, cocoa powder, and chocolate bars. Learn more about Fair Trade certification from TransFair USA.
Image credit: Salmon Safe
Salmon Safe certification is designed to recognize farm and other land use operations that contribute to restoring stream eco-system health in native salmon fisheries. Farms producing products that carry the Salmon-Safe label have been evaluated for the use of agricultural practices that promote healthy streams and wetlands, including water use, erosion control, chemical management, and proper animal farming. The criteria to earn certification is designed to protect the salmon streams from farm run-off through good soil, water, and vegetation management that reduce chemical use and sustain resources.
Products that carry the Salmon Safe certification include fresh fruits and vegetables, dairy, meats, and wine. Learn more about the certification from Salmon Safe.
Image credit: Marine Stewardship Council
Marine Stewardship Council
Also dealing with fish, but more focused on the ones we eat, the Marine Stewardship Council (MSC) labeling program aims to promote sustainable fisheries. The MSC has defined sustainable marine fisheries as those that, "ensure that the catch of marine resources are at the level compatible with long-term sustainable yield, while maintaining the marine environment's biodiversity, productivity and ecological processes.
So, when you buy fish with the MSC label on it, you'll know that they haven't been caught from an unsustainable fishery or otherwise harvested in an ocean-killing fashion; one thing it won't tell you is if that fish has unsafe levels of mercury or other bio-accumulating toxins -- we've got you covered, though; keep reading. To learn more about the MSC certification, check in with the Marine Stewardship Council.
Image credit: FishWise
Developed by the non-profit organization Sustainable Fishery Advocates, FishWise is a retail-level labeling system that identifies sustainable seafood; for the more sustainable choices, it displays a list of which species fall below health guidelines for bio-accumulation baddies like mercury and PCBs. The label has a couple of different marks to look for. The color coding -- green is good, yellow is concerning, red is bad -- identifies how sustainable the fishery is; the label also includes symbols that indicate the catch method -- longline, hook and line, etc. FishWise also uses one set of criteria used for aquacultured fish and a different set for wild-caught fish.
While it's a little tricky to identify the sustainability of particular fish at your grocery store or fishmonger, using MSC and FishWise -- whose information is handily synthesized with FishChoice -- will help you find greener seafood and fish choices.
So, when it comes to food labels, be wary of claims like "all-natural" and "chemical-free." If you find yourself asking, "Hey, how could they possibly keep track of that?" or saying, "Golly, that could mean so many different things," then watch out -- the answers aren't likely to be super-green. Seek out and employ these labels in your food shopping routine and you'll be well on your way to eating green.
More about finding green food
Avoid 'Smart Choices' on Food Products to Eat Healthy
Questionable Intelligence Surrounding "Smart Choices" Food Label
US Consumers Prefer "100% Natural" Food Label
FishChoice: Sustainable Seafood for All