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Meanings behind the produce labels in the supermarket

August 31, 2021
Ze Ze

After coming to the US, I realized the food safety is pretty secure, and it is generally safe for people to purchase food products in the various markets, stores in this country. Interesting thing is, correct me if I'm wrong, manufacturers are not mandated to point out if their product is genetically modified or not. According to Purdue University:

Back when GMOs were introduced into the market in the 1990s, the federal government didn’t require a label if a food product contained an ingredient that had been genetically modified. The United States regulating agencies determined that there were no notable differences in nutrition and food safety from other foods we eat that would require special labeling.

According to FDA agricultural-biotechnology, it says

The Standard requires that by 2022, food makers, importers, and certain retailers label foods that are bioengineered or have bioengineered ingredients.

Based on the quotes above, we know that labelling GMO ingredient is still a self-willingness thing to do, even if the food has GMO ingredient in presence, the retailer can choose not to clarify it. We are not discussing the good and bad of the GMO product here, but at least consumer should have the right to know what exactly we are buying using our own money. Take a look at the product labels when you go to the store next time, what do you see? USDA Organic, All Natural, Organic, Hormone Free, Certified Humane, Halal Kosher, etc.. Understanding the meanings behind these labels is very important for us to make wise decisions in choosing and purchasing our product.

PLU codes on fresh fruits and vegetables

PLU codes, which is the Price Look-Up Codes (PLU is the abbreviation), is a small label that can be seen on most of the fresh fruits and vegetables. The International Federation for Produce Standards (IFPS) proposed this code for the retailers to organize various kinds of produce they sell and store easily, it is normally composed of 4 digits or 5 digits.

The 4 digit PLU code is taken out randomly in between 3000 and 4999, each 4 digit code represent one kind of produce, including information like produce name, type, size and other characteristics. For example, 4133 represents small gala apple, I was able to find the information of the product based on the code here, give it a try if you are interested. When I buy groceries during self checkout at Walmart, Target, Tops Friendly etc.. I would normally put in the PLU code when the scanner is not scanning for some reason, it is every convenient to type in the PLU code on the screen and find the corresponding product. Sometimes if I really like one produce, and I can't remember its name, I can just look it up using this tool if I know the PLU code, that's so cool! If you add a number "9" in front of one PLU code, it means the ORGANIC version of that particular food product. IFPS previously saved number "8" as the beginning of the 5 digit PLU code for GMO products, but since US did not force retailers with putting on the GMO label, so no retailers here was actually using this 8 prefix, and now IFPS have cancelled number 8 for this purpose and stated number 8 will be used for other labeling purposes later on.

What if I don't want to eat GMO produce?

Some of you might be asking, what if I really don't want to consume GMO produce, at the same time I can't distinguish which are GMO products based on the label? Actually, there are not much GMO products in the supermarket, each GMO product needs the approval of the department of USDA, EPA, FDA, etc.. It says that over 90% of the corn, yellow pea, cotton, rape flower, beets are GMO type crops, however, you won't normally see these products for sale as the fresh farming products, they are normally processed into edible oil, sugar, farm feedings, ethanol, etc..

Taken from FDA.gov

The fresh GMO crops for sale in the store as of now only includes small portions of sweet corn, large portions of Hawaii papaya, small portions of zucchini and yellow squash, the GMO version of these crops increased the characteristic of fighting against certain insects or illness. If you really want to avoid all GMO related crops, then you probably want to avoid all non-organic processing foods, since the edible oil in most materials come from GMO crops. You will want to avoid vegetable oil, corn oil, canola oil, cottonseed oil as cooking oil; use cane sugar as sugar; choose the organic version of the veggies and fruits including sweet corn, papaya, zucchini, alfalfa; choose the regular, hard to change color type of potato and apple; get organic fed meat type; choose wild-caught or non Atlantic type of salmon. Of course the suggestions above are for people who want to avoid GMO products completely. Personally I don't mind having a mix of natural food and GMO products.

The usual labels on produce packages

USDA Organic
USDA organic certified stamp from usda.gov

The most reliable certified stamp for the organic products for sale in the store would be this USDA Organic stamp, to get this stamp, all the produce must comply with the USDA organic standard, including using the method and substances they allow to plant, grow or process throughout the cycle. For instance you are not allowed to usGMO, radiation, banned pesticides, antibiotics, hormones, etc.. No artificial coloring, essence, preservatives, etc.. On top of that, the produce is examined, verified by authorized certification agencies, so basically we can put trust into this stamp. There are two main types of products with USDA Organic stamp:

100% organic: If the package has this description on top it means the product must contain 100% organic material (except for water and salt), usually the fresh organic farming product, or processed products with no additions like flour, cereal, may also include 100% organic description.

organic: represents organic raw material ingredients except water and salt have to be at least 95%, no sulfite. But may contain no more than 5% non-organic faming produce with no organic version in market, or certified non farming product.

The following situations are allowed to claim the product is organic, but can not use the USDA vertified organic stamp:

Made with Organic...represents organic ingredients except water and salt being at least 70%, no sulfite, but may contain no more than 30% of non-organic farming products like yeast and other allowed substances.Also, if the manufacture's annual sale value is less than $5000, then they may set up self-monitoring, no need to get reviewed and claim organic through authorized certified agency.

Non-GMO Project Verified
black and white color label

Non-GMO project is a not for profit non-official organization. This project aims to provide third party verification and auditing. Since there are various pollution occurring in the process of plantation, production, and processing, NGP will make sure the GMO substance pollution is lower than certain limit standard using testing and analytics, for example the food aspect standard is below 0.9%. This certification stamp is currently the most authorized third party non GMO product label. For people who is bothered by the GMO ingredient can use this stamp to filter products except using the USDA stamp. One thing to note that this label only confirms that the product does not contain GMO substance, not in charge of seeing if the product has additional chemicals, pesticides, etc..

GMO Free

Except for the NGP third party certification mentioned above, you all might have seen some products that claims be "GMO Free", "GE Free", "Non-GMO", etc.. however this claim is not managed by official rules, no one can verify if the claim is true. Of course, a lot of crops indeed do not have GMO version anyway.

Certified Naturally Grown
CNG stamp

CNG is another not for profit organization, since it's not cheap to apply and get approved for USDA certified organic stamp, so some small farm may turn into some more fair price choices. The eligibility requirement for CNG is set using the USDA organic planting and breeding standard. CNG certification requires no use of any composite pesticides, fertilizer, antibiotics, hormone, GMO seeds. CNG farming animals are mostly fed in the pasture and with activity space, all planting of the feedings must use GMO seeds with no additions. On the other hand, the process of CNG certification are assessments done along with other CNG farms, there are no third party organization evaluation involved.

Food Alliance Certified
FA stamp

Food Alliance is another not for profit organization, they set a series of operational standard of sustainable food and agriculture, and they verify the eligibility of the farms through third party. Their standard also focus on the working conditions of the farms and workers, the humane treatment of the farming animals, the environmental protection of the wild life habitat, the protection of water and land, etc. in addition to high limitation of the use of heavy poisoning pesticides, GMO seeds. But FA does not limit the use of artificial composite pesticides, it only limits the use of pesticides listed as "extreme hazardous" and "highly hazardous", but some still "light hazardous" types are still allowed. Its limitation to the use of fertilizer compared to organic standard is more loose. Comparing to organic certification that does not require the use of antibiotics at all, FA limits the use of antibiotics to treat corresponding illnesses, and require the production. of milk, egg and meat need to have a buffer period after using the medications,

100% Natural / All Natural

There are lots of variety of labels on this, also they all claim to be 100% Natural or All Natural. But how "natural" it is? USDA has specific requirement to the "Natural" food label on Meat and Poultry products, meaning meat and poultry products do not add any artificial substances or any colorings, and is taken care of using the least number of steps. However except for Meat and Poultry, USDA, FDA has no definition or ruling on any other food using the "Natural" label.

Humanely Raised

People who keeps on eye on animal benefits may also see all kinds of humanely raised food labels. The better animal's life condition is, the better is their health, less use of antibiotics medications are needed, the ultimate product quality can also be better. I believe you must have seen the phrases like Cage Free, Free Range on the egg cartons, their actual meaning is:

Cage Free - Raised and fed not in the cage. The hen is not raised in the small cage, BUT it does not require to have outdoor activities, so possibly lots of hens are kept in a bigger sized indoor room.

Free Range / Free Roaming - Except for being Cage Free, the hens are allowed to do outdoor activities freely, but may also just be a chicken coop with a small door leading to the small balcony.

Pasture Raised / Pastured - Compared to the two phrases above, pasture raised chicken is more suitable to humanely raised standard and tends to get more of this kind of tag. According to the definition of this phrase, they must be living in the pastured environment, with a lot more outdoor activities time and space, there are chances of them eating grass or bugs outdoor apart from getting the regular feedings. Researches show that eggs produced by Pasture-Raised chicken contain higher omega-3 levels.

Despite above labels having official definitions, but partial conceptions have greater grey zone, meaning it's difficult to judge what is right or wrong. The following are a couple of authorized humanely raised stamps, their certification usually have rather strict standard:

From certifiedhuamen.org
From agreenerworld.org
From americanhumane.org
No Hormones

US allows the farm to inject artificial growth hormone for cow in order to increase the production of milk and meat. FDA thinks the leftover artificial hormone level in milk and beef is very little, and there is no difference in nutrition and safety compared to those produced without using hormone. However most people still feels offensive to the use of hormones, so they tend to choose organic certification on choosing milk and egg, or those with no hormone label. However, one thing to note is that USDA only allows the use of hormone when raising cow and sheep. Hormones are strictly prohibited with chicken raising. So, if you see No Hormones label on chicken, eggs, etc.. You can just ignore them, lol.

No Antibiotics

Food with this label meaning there is no use of antibiotics at all in the raising process of the animals, although USDA regularly checks the the antibiotics leftover to ensure the food safety, but you would feel a lot secure if you choose not to use products with antibiotics.

Grass-Fed

Normally there is Grass-Fed label on the beef or lamb packages, the price is also a lot more expensive, since these represent the cow and sheep can feed on grass mainly or completely after they cut out getting milk, without the feeding of any grains. The cow that is grass0fed is a lot leaner than the cow eating grains, with more beautiful patterns, less saturated dat, a lot better in taste, texture and nutritional health aspects.

The common labels include Certified Grassfed by AWA, American Grassfed, PCO certified 100% Grassfed, etc.. But since official does not limit Grass-Fed labels anymore, so if it really ensures to be 100% grass fed, it's better if there is another third party organization stamp. The common stamps also include USDA or Food Alliance with grass-fed except the three mentioned above. In some packages you may also see "Grass-finished" phrase, even with the traditional way of raising, most of the cow is raised in the pasture in the first period, and changed to grain finishing feeding method when it is almost mature to speed up the fat storage. Grass finished meaning the cow eat grass until the end, although theoretically grass-fed also include grass finished.

Vegetarian-Fed

Have you ever seen "Vegetarian-Fed" claim on the egg packaging? This phrase, however, is not managed by officials, what it means is that the feeding chicken eat is all vegetarian, not containing any animal byproduct. However, anyone knows chicken is not a vegetarian animal, under natural conditions, chicken find bugs and insects to eat. So this label doesn't mean nutritional value is better, it also can't tell you the natural activity state of the chicken. The purpose of this label is probably just to attract the attention of the vegetarians.

Farm Fresh

This label may give you a feeling that the produce is just produced fresh and packaged and delivered. But this word is the same as the "Natural" label, there is no official definition and rule on this label.

Excellent Source vs. Good Source

Some products can have "Excellent source of..." or "Good source of..." phrases, it means this food is very rich in this particular nutrition. But what's the difference between excellent and good? Actually FDA has specific definitions to these claims. For example is we use "hight", "rich in?, or "excellent source of" to describe, then that content goes over 20% of the single daily value; if we use "good source" to describe, then that would be 10%-19% of DV. "Fortified", "enriched" phrases meaning more than 10% of DV compared to same type of food. You can read and learn more here.

0 g trans Fat

Everyone knows trans fat is not healthy, in the market many processed food packets also has labels like "0 g trans fat" etc. can also let people understand it as "completely not containing trans-fat". However, the definition of "trans fat free" is less than 0.5 g trans fatty acids per labeled serving. FDA website claims:

Consequently, when the amount of trans fat in a dietary supplement is less than 0.5 gram per serving, trans fat must not be listed on the Supplement Facts panel.

As long as the food contains less than 0.5 g of trans fat per SERVING they can claim the food has "o g trans fat". The serving size is determined by the manufacturer. For example, there is a big bag of biscuit with the definition of one serving being one piece of biscuit, and this biscuit happens to have 0.49 g of trans fat, then they can write "o g trans fat" on the label. If you just eat that one piece of cookie, the trans fat level will not go over the limit, but if you consume the whole bag in one time, then you need to be really careful..

Similarly, fat free, cholesterol free, sugar free etc. works similarly. Regarding the specific definition you can look at the official report by FDA. Of course, it is not necessary to totally avoid fat, cholesterol, sugar, sodium completely unless you have serious health condition, it is not a big problem to choose according to the tags. "Reduced/less" meaning the respective single serving amount reduced by more than 25% compared to the same classification, "Light/lite" meaning reduced up to 50% or above.

Expiration Date

In the US, federal law only requires infant baby formulas to label out the expiration date clearly, it is not mandatory to label out the expiration date for other foods (it may varies according to the local law). Many people might not know about this before. The expiration date on food packages mostly represents the timeline for this product to keep its "best taste/best freshness", not the time to maintain the food's safety or become rotten. Usually we would see the following keywords: best if used by/before, sell by, use by, and freeze by. According to USDA.gov:

  • A "Best if Used By/Before" date indicates when a product will be of best flavor or quality.  It is not a purchase or safety date.
  • A "Sell-By" date tells the store how long to display the product for sale for inventory management.  It is not a safety date.
  • A “Use-By" date is the last date recommended for the use of the product while at peak quality. It is not a safety date except for when used on infant formula as described below.
  • A “Freeze-By” date indicates when a product should be frozen to maintain peak quality. It is not a purchase or safety date.

Meat

For the convenience of consumers to choose, USDA created some scoring standard for meat quality throughout the nation, so the consumers can easily know the quality of meat from different places.

Beef
Info chart regarding differences between USDA's beef grades

There are in total 8 levels for USDA beef grades: Prime, Choice, Select as described above. Standard, Commercial: normal beef that pass inspection, there is normally no tags on these, they are just the normal meat for sale in the market. Utility, Cutter, Canner: this kind of meat will not be sold directly, but as ground beef, or other processing materials. Apart from these, Certified Tender and Certified Very Tender can ensure the meat tenderness for our tastebuds.

USDA Certified Tender Stamp
USDA Certified Very Tender Stamp
Certified Angus Beef

Black Angus is a famous and also most common type of cattle we see in the US farms. This kind of cattle is known for its growing speed, marbling pattern on the meat (reflects better meat quality). However since it's also the most common type of cattle, so if there is only labels like Black Angus Beef or Angus Beef, then it doesn't represent prime quality.

CAB certified

If the packaging has a stamp like this, it means completely different thing, this certification is given out by American Angus Beef Association, they only review the quality of Angus beef, and only Angus beef with the quality equal to USDA Prime or Choice grade can get this certification, this ensures the quality of various factors like outlook, taste, texture.

Yield Grade

Yield grade has 5 levels. Level one represents the highest proportion of lean meat, the higher the level, the worse proportion of fat:lean, less production of lean meat. We normally don't see this kind of grading in the supermarket meat retailing, but if you have a chance to buy whole or big piece of the animal, you may know the quality buy looking at or asking for the yield grade. This is pretty important for us especially during big holidays like Eid Al- Adha and Eid Al-Fitr. We should definitely ask for the yield grade when we are purchasing large chunks of meat.

Poultry

USDA has a poultry grading manual and they classify chicken into grade A, B and C. Only grade A chicken is sold in the store, lower grade levels are taken into processing.

Eggs

According to USDA.gov, there are three grades in eggs.

  • USDA Grade AA – The freshest and highest quality eggs will receive a Grade AA.
  • USDA Grade A – Very high quality eggs will receive a Grade A.
  • USDA Grade B – Grade B eggs are usually used for breaking stock (liquid eggs) and baking, depending on the number of defects.
from Egg Safety Center

Grade AA is the best grade, it is the best for poached eggs that require the perfect condition of the egg shape. Grade A egg whites are not as firm as grade AA, it is the most common type of eggs we see in the supermarket. Grade B is normally used for making egg liquid, and other processed egg products.

Omega-3 Enriched

A lot of eggs in the store claim that they are omega-3 enriched, it actually means they added food that are omega-3 enriched in the feeding for the hens, like flax seeds, fish oils, etc.. However there is no official rule or standard as to how much fortified it can get, so it is probably better to just look at the omega-3 levels in each egg. So we should look for this level when we are picking our eggs.

Milk & Dairy

FDA classifies the milk grade into grade A and grade B according to the bacteria level inside. All the milk that are sold in the store are grade A, grade B milk that can't reach the standard can only be used to make cheese, butter, nonfat milk product etc.. However, over 90% of the fresh milk US produces can reach grade A, so actually most milk products are made with grade A milk.

Dairy products are classified by USDA with the following levels:

US Grade AA/ US Extra Grade: the highest grading level for dairy products.

US Grade A/ US Stander Grade: one grade lower, but still nice.

USDA Quality Approved: we don't usually see dairy products with this kind of certification.

Pasteurized

CDC and FDA recommends fresh milk or dairy go through pasteurized process to kill the bacteria to make the product safer and cleaner, the nomal pasteurization method include but not limited to:

Vat Pasteurization: heated until 63 degree Celsius or 145 degree Fahrenheit, and is usually used for the processing of fresh milk that is used to make dairy products.

High temperature short time pasteurization (HTST): heat until 72 degree Celsius (161 degree Fahrenheit) and remain for at least 15 seconds, most fresh milk are processed using this type of pasteurization, fresh milk processed using HTST and be stored in the fridge for 2-3 weeks.

Ultra Pasteurization: heat until 138 degree Celsius (280 degree Fahrenheit) and remain above 2 seconds, fresh milk that go through this process can even be stored longer time.

But for some people, they are not satisfied with the high temperature process milk as it can cause natural nutrition and some protein and enzyme to go away, they would prefer raw milk and think that the taste and nutritional value are both better for raw milk. CDC and FDA on the other hand think that pasteurized milk is safer and will not cause serious nutritional loss, high temperature can kill some enzyme in the fresh milk and is goof for keeping it fresh. One thing to note is that some states require all retailing milk to go through pasteurization, you can't get unpasteurized raw milk unless you have ways. Make sure to check with your local state regulations.

Homogenized

Another common label on the milk packaging would be homogenized. For non-homogenized milk, a thick layer of cream would form on top when you put it for a long time, homogenized milk however will not encounter this issue. During the homogenizing process, high pressure break the fat down into small molecules through high pressure physical method, so they can float in the liquid evenly and thus can be stored for a longer period of time. If you want to intake the thick layer of cream in the milk then choose raw, or milk without homogenized phrase.

Honey

There were report saying 75% of the honey found in the US supermarkets are not real honey, since most honey go through the heating and ultra filtration process, which filters the most valuable substance "pollen" in the honey. Heating and ultra filtration can make the final product look more transparent, not easy to form solids, and can put for longer time period. USDA does not have a very specific standard for organic honey, it is verified by the usual way of farming. It is safer in a way but it doesn't represent there is pollen inside. USDA also has grade A, B, C for honey, but it is mainly based on the water content, outlook (like those with no floating particles or gas bubbles) and smell and taste, it is not evaluated as the nutritional value. If there is a grade A, B, C on the honey, watch out for strained (roughly filtered, can keep pollen), or filtered (filter tiny particles including pollen) to pick your honey. That's why most Americans emphasize more on "raw honey". Although there is no official definition, but it normally means unheated or ultra filtered honey. If you want to keep pollen in the honey look for Raw, Unfiltered, especially if it's USDA Organic Raw.