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5 Top Food Packaging and Product Labels Decoded

What those eco-friendly seals of approval really mean

an illustration of household items such as food spices and cleaning products

BEN MOUNSEY-WOOD

En español | To get you to buy stuff, and pay more for it, marketers increasingly turn to hints of health: labels implying that a product is good for you or the environment. From 2015 to 2019, U.S. sales of consumer goods marketed as eco-friendly grew seven times faster than those of other products, reports the NYU Stern Center for Sustainable Business.

But you don't always have to pay a premium for green products. Often, it comes down to reading ingredient lists and knowing which labels are meaningful, says Erika Schreder, science director at the nonprofit advocacy group Toxic-Free Future. I looked at what some of the most common labels really mean so you can judge whether they're worth it.

1. Eggs

More than 70 percent of hens in the U.S. are confined to cages, which troubles many people.

Labels to look for:

  • Cage Free Chickens are free to roam during the laying cycle and have unlimited access to food and water, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. But chickens might be crowded indoors.

  • Free Range (or Free Roaming) Hens are uncaged, have unlimited access to food and water, and access to the outdoors. But that outside space might be just a small patch of concrete.

  • Animal Welfare Approved (AWA) The ultimate in chicken freedom! Chickens always have space to roam around outdoors. This label is found mostly on eggs from smaller farms.

  • Organic. Chickens are raised without antibiotics and fed an organic diet without pesticides or fertilizers. There are no guarantees about living conditions, other than that chickens must have access to the outdoors.

2. Beef

The USDA grades beef this way: prime (a lot of marbling, or fat interspersed with lean meat), choice (less marbling) and select (even less). But there's more to see.

Labels to look for:

  • No antibiotics The USDA certifies that the cattle were raised without these drugs, which have been linked to a rise in antibiotic- resistant illnesses in humans.

  • American Grassfed or Food Alliance Certified Grassfed Cattle ate only grass, unlike most beef cattle, which are fattened up on grains. No hormones or antibiotics were used to promote this growth.

  • Organic Animals were raised with no antibiotics or hormones, and ate only organic feed and food they found themselves. They were also free to graze in a pasture.

  • Antibiotic-free Ignore this. All beef, by the time you eat it, should be free of antibiotics.
a collage of packaging labels

USDA/ A GREENER WORLD/ USDA/ AMERICAN GRASSFED ASSOCIATION/ USP/ EWG/ EPA

3. Personal care

Be aware that the U.S. doesn't regulate these products for safety as it does with medications.

Labels to look for:

  • Organic Nearly all ingredients, excluding water and salt, meet USDA organic standards. “Made with organic ingredients” means at least 70 percent organic. But “organic” doesn't necessarily mean safer.

  • Cruelty Free (Leaping Bunny logo) The product was developed without animal testing, according to the nonprofit Coalition for Consumer Information on Cosmetics.

  • EWG Verified Products are free of what the nonprofit Environmental Working Group considers “chemicals of concern.” Many items are rated at ewg.org/skindeep.

4. Vitamins

Like cosmetics, supplements aren't regulated as drugs are.

Labels to look for:

  • USP Verified Ingredients match amounts and potencies listed and don't have harmful levels of certain contaminants, affirms the nonprofit U.S. Pharmacopeia Convention.

  • Whole Food (or Food-Based) Vitamins are made with dehydrated foods — an indicator of contents but not quality. These pills may contain synthetic ingredients, too.

  • Non-GMO Project Verified The product contains no genetically modified ingredients.

5. Detergent

Laundry detergents no longer contain the polluting softening agents known as phosphates, but there are other ingredients you may want to steer clear of.

Labels to look for:

  • Safer Choice. This product meets the Environmental Protection Agency's criteria for effectiveness and safety, based on scientific review of ingredients and packaging. Search the product database at epa.gov/saferchoice.

  • Beauty Without Bunnies. The product and its ingredients are not tested on animals, according to People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, which also certifies cosmetics and personal care products. Search PETA's database at CrueltyFree.peta.org.

Lisa Lee Freeman, a consumer and shopping expert, was founder and editor in chief of ShopSmart magazine from Consumer Reports.

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