A Health and Wellness Shopper’s Guide, Part 3: Understanding Product Marketing Terms

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.

InPart 2, we discuss the pros and cons of each certification.

In the final, Part 3, of this series, we discuss “green” product marketing terms.

Companies use carefully written advertisements to get consumers to buy their products. They use words like “natural,” “gluten-free,” “non-toxic,” “green,” and “sustainable.” These words are often not explained.

When choosing between several products, we may tend to reach for the ones with the eco-friendly buzzwords. 

But what can we really take from these claims? Is a certification needed to know that a food is free of GMOs or that an item is organic?

The bottom line is yes. A certification is necessary because marketing terms are just that, marketing terms. They are meant to appeal to our values or interests.

Although certifications are far from perfect (see Part 2 of our Shopper’s Guide), they do provide some oversight of product claims.

The following is a list of some common marketing terms and what they may (or may not!) say about a product. 

Natural: If something has natural ingredients, the ingredients were produced by nature. This term is often applied to flavoring.

But the same chemical can be derived from both natural and non-natural sources. So the distinction between “natural” and “artificial” can be misleading. The category “natural” is NOT regulated.

Plant-derived: “Plant-derived” ingredients can still be modified or heavily processed. You may see phrases such as:

  • Naturally-derived

  • Plant-based

  • Bio-based

These phrases describe ingredients that came from plants or minerals, but have been combined with synthetic ingredients.

Non-toxic: The use of “non-toxic” is not regulated. It is another marketing term. It can mean different things for different companies. 

The Consumer Product Safety Commision (CPSC) has a broad definition of a toxic product. They say it “can produce personal injury or illness to humans when it is inhaled, swallowed, or absorbed through the skin.”

Generally, non-toxic refers to leaving out chemicals that have been shown to have effects such as cancer and death. Sometimes it can refer to hormone or neurological harm as well. 

Because “non-toxic” is unregulated, it is best to look at specific ingredients in the products in order to avoid them

Hypoallergenic: This implies that a product will not cause skin or allergic reactions. It is also a completely unregulated term.

So in essence, the term has no meaning; it means whatever the company wants it to mean.

Fragrance-free: Fragrance-free” implies that a product has no fragrance materials or masking scents. Although it is not regulated, there is a fragrance-free certification through Safer Choice

Companies are not required to list all the ingredients in their added fragrances. They are often referred to on the label as “fragrance” or “parfum.” These terms can refer to a mixture of many chemicals. 

Phthalates are often in fragrances as odor dispersants. It is best to avoid products with fragrance. Opt for “fragrance-free” instead.

Unscented: “Unscented” is also an unregulated term. It implies that the product contains chemicals that mask or neutralize the odors of the other ingredients. It is best to avoid “unscented” products.

Gluten free: Gluten is a protein found in grains. It causes dough to be elastic and bread to stay together. There is a gluten-free certification

The certification is essential information for those with Celiac disease or gluten intolerance. For most people, eating gluten-free likely does not improve health and can lead to fiber and vitamin deficiencies

“Gluten-free” is often used for products that clearly don’t contain gluten, such as water.

Organic: Organic certifications were discussed in Part 1 and Part 2 of this series. Foods labeled “organic” must be certified by an accredited organization. These foods are free of: 

  • Pesticides

  • Synthetic fertilizers

  • Genetically modified organisms

  • Ionizing radiation

Green: The term “green” is often used to appeal to “eco-friendly” people. It does not necessarily indicate the product is better for the environment. 

The term “greenwashing” is used to describe a company that exaggerates or falsely claims to be environmentally friendly. Companies often use the word “eco” or leaf/tree/earth symbols to reinforce this image.

Sustainable: Sustainable implies that a company is using renewable resources for their products. Many companies do have sustainable practices, but this is another buzzword that is often used in greenwashing. 

There are some certifications that indicate sustainability. These include FSC (for paper products), LEED (for buildings), and GBB (for sustainable companies). 

Biodegradable: Something is biodegradable if it can break down into its basic components. Turning food scraps into compost is a process of biodegradation. 

Plastic can take thousands of years to degrade. As it degrades, it turns into smaller and smaller pieces. This is where microplastics come from. The term “biodegradable” can be misleading. This is because plastic will biodegrade, but it takes a long time.

You may have seen products with “biodegradable plastics.” These are also known as “oxo-degradables.” These plastics are not a good option.

Biodegradable plastics are made with additives that speed up the plastic breaking apart. However, the pieces still litter the environment with microplastics. Also, the additives that help break up plastic are themselves pollutants.

Compostable: A better word to look for than “biodegradable” is “compostable.” This means that the product will degrade into compost (natural dirt) when treated at an industrial compost plant.

Made from recycled materials: Before the 1960s and 70s, recycling was needed to get the most out of materials that were hard to come by. More recently, recycling is promoted in order to reduce waste, create jobs, and conserve resources.

Not much recycling actually happens in the United States. Here, more waste is produced than can be processed. Rather, collection companies sell the materials to China, where it is repurposed. 

However, in 2018, China stopped buying these materials. Instead, the waste is sent to any country that will take it. From there, it becomes difficult to trace. In some cases, the waste may not be recycled at all.

There is a misconception that plastic can be recycled endlessly. This is not the case–it is usually just once or twice. This is because processing plastic for recycling can degrade it. 

Only certain types of plastic can be recycled:

The bottom line is, using recycled material is great. Avoiding single-use items is even better. Plastic can also contain harmful toxic chemicals. So, avoiding plastic is good for the environment and your health!

Renewable resource/renewably sourced: A renewable resource is something that cannot be used up, such as wind or sun. It can also be something that can easily be replaced, such as quickly growing plants. 

Something that is “renewably sourced” is made with renewable resources. Wind and solar energy are common examples of renewable energy. Hemp and corn, used for fuel or products, are also renewable.

There are several certifications that companies can receive if they use renewable resources. These include Green-e and LEED.

How to Buy Responsibly

  • Look for certifications rather than buzzwords. See Part 1 and Part 2 of this series to learn about common certifications.

  • Research companies. Look at their products and practices to make sure they are not “greenwashing.”

  • Look at the ingredients, not just the buzzwords. Refer here for a detailed list of ingredients to avoid.

  • Avoid “fragrance,” “parfum,” and “unscented.” Fragrance-free options are better.

  • Reuse. Buy items that can be used again and again. Reuse bags and packaging.

  • Avoid single use plastics. Use products such as reusable straws or coffee cups.

  • Compostable. Look for products that are “compostable” rather than “biodegradable.”

  • Check out our list of approved personal care products, which are made without toxic chemicals.