A Health and Wellness Shopper’s Guide, Part 2: The Pros and Cons of Product Labels

During your detox journey it can be overwhelming to pick through the ingredients labels on products. Use this blog as a helpful guide on how to read through product labels, label pros and cons, and how to pinpoint greenwashing!

In Part 1 of this series, we talk about the certifications and seals you might find on cosmetics, food packaging, produce, and appliances.

Part 2, we discuss the pros and cons of each certification. In the final, Part 3, of this series, we discuss “green” product marketing terms.

The list in Part 1 of this series is just a few of the certifications that can be found on foods and products in stores. 

Although the certifications seem helpful, how can we be sure that the organizations are legitimately certifying products? Checking for the “right” ingredients? Ensuring the best practices? 

How often do they spot-check the products? How long does the certification last? Do certifying organizations charge the manufacturers?

Here, we discuss the benefits and drawbacks of some of the most common certifications.

How Organic is “Certified Organic?”

The organic certifications we have listed, including California Certified Organic Farmers (CCOF), ECOCERT, and Oregon Tilth Certified Organic (OTCO) are just a few of the 80 organizations that the USDA has approved to certify organic farms. Of these, some are for profit and others are not. 

Although the USDA has requirements for a certified organic farm, there are a number of issues with the certification process.

In 2016, the number of organic farms that met USDA standards totaled 14,217, on 5 million acres of land. With only 80 organizations overseeing this many farms, it is easy to imagine that mistakes are made. With organic food selling for a higher price, there is a lot of incentive for farmers to get certified so that they can make more money for their produce. Farm owners may be tempted tof of their practices just to receive the organic label.

Surprise inspections are rare. Most of the certification process is on the honor system. Farmer owners supply the information to the certifying agency. As a result, a certifying agency might not know whether the information the farm reports matches their actual farming practices.

A further problem with organic certification is that the farms must pay the agencies yearly for the label. This creates a barrier for many smaller farms to receive the certification. Thus, larger farms have an easier time getting certified. 

These fees also create an incentive for the certifying organization. They may keep farms certified, even if they are non-compliant, so that they do not lose future earnings.

Cornucopia is an organization that is dedicated to tackling a number of these problems. They perform research and advocacy to fight against the USDA’s tendency to favor the largest farms. They also provide oversight during certification review.

GMOs and Organic Certifications

GMO stands for “genetically modified organism.” The GMO-free label verifies that the ingredients are made from animals and plants that were not genetically modified in a laboratory. In order to be certified organic, food can’t be genetically modified. However, GMO-free food is not necessarily organic.

It is not clear if eating GMOs is harmful. Those who are opposed to GMOs such as the Non-GMO Project argue that the gene sequences in GMOs are not found in nature. As a result, they argue that we do not know the effects of eating these foods, so it is safer to avoid them. 

Others claim that there is no harm to GMOs and that we have been modifying our food for thousands of years through selective breeding. Those who believe that there is no risk associated with GMOs state that in order to actually eat healthy, one should instead focus on non-artificial and organic ingredients.

How Fair is Fairtrade?

There is controversy on whether Fairtrade’s certification improves fair trade worldwide. 

The Fairtrade organization claims to support farmers, prevent instability due to pricing fluctuations, promote fair practices, and support smaller farms.

However, some say that Fairtrade penalizes small farms that do not participate. Because it is a brand interested in self-promotion, some argue that it uses positive stories from farmers to defend against criticism. In addition, it is unclear how much of the extra money spent by consumers on Fairtrade products is spent helping farmers.

Food Safety and NSF

The reviews of the NSF certification are positive. When it comes to the foodservice industry, using NSF certified equipment is key for following food safety regulations. Professional and government organizations trust NSF to deliver safe goods.

How Natural is NATRUE?

The NATRUE certification receives positive feedback from reviewers. Supporters say that the organization benefits consumers and sellers of organic personal care products. Because of the lack of government regulation on personal care products, the Natrue certification is valuable for consumers to verify that their purchases are safe for use. In order to be certified, 75% of a brand’s products must adhere to the requirements for natural, organic, GMO-free, biodegradable ingredients that are validated by scientists to be non-toxic.

Trees and the Forest Stewardship Council

There is controversy surrounding the FSC: their certified products do not always promote less deforestation. There have been times when FSC certified loggers came close to decimating forests. Critics also point to the label as a way for loggers to charge more for wood. Undercover investigations by the Environmental Investigation Agency uncovered illegal logging by FSC certified companies.

Also, most of the FSC’s locations are not in the tropics, where deforestation is most concerning. The certification is expensive, so only loggers in more wealthy countries can afford to become certified. Thus, forest protection is greater in wealthier areas. 

Others suggest that logging is not the most serious cause of deforestation. Rather, land clearing for large-scale farming is. Thus, purchasing sustainably farmed products and avoiding red meat and palm oil might have more of an impact on saving forests.

The Bottom Line

Product certifications can be useful in helping decide which products to buy. However, in order to trust a label, better enforcement, transparency, and lab testing are needed. Some easy ways to make quick and safe decisions while shopping include:

  • Choose certified organic when possible. Check out this helpful guide!

  • Check out Million Marker’s list of approved safe products.

  • Use NATRUE certified cosmetics and personal care products and NSF kitchen and appliance products.

  • Avoid items that come in plastic, paper receipts, and canned foods to prevent BPA exposure.

  • To minimize environmental impact, buy things with little to no single-use packaging.

For more information about health and wellness product certifications and marketing terms, check out Part 1 and 3 of this series.