By Lisa Elaine Held
The more ubiquitous food certifications become, the easier it is to write them off as nonsense. In fact, it can feel like companies are just stamping random seals onto their packaging to trick you into paying more. (Sometimes, they are.)
You may find yourself asking totally legitimate questions like “Why is something that’s already USDA Certified Organic also certified Non-GMO?” (The answer: straight-up marketing BS.) Or, “Is there a difference between PCO 100% Certified Grassfed and AGA Certified Grassfed?” (Yes, the first requires organic certification.)
While all of this can get crazy confusing, there are real reasons regulated standards like these matter. Primarily, they’re assuring you that an outside organization has verified that the producer of your yogurt or protein bar is actually doing what they say they’re doing when it comes to sourcing its ingredients. “Cheating” is a lot more rampant than you’d think. Plus, you may want to support some of the standards that have bigger goals, like raising the standards on organic to include soil regeneration, a practice that can help reverse climate change.
To help, I’m explaining, in plain language, what some of the other, less common food labels that are in the “realm of organic” actually mean.
Get to Know These Food Certifications
1. Non-GMO Project Verified
You probably already know that this one means whatever you’re eating cannot contain genetically modified ingredients (with no provision relating to whether or not pesticides were used). But I’m including this one primarily because of the widespread confusion about how it relates to organic. It’s become common for companies to tout that they’re USDA Certified Organic AND Non-GMO Project Verified. Wow! Except, no. The certified organic seal already means that food cannot contain genetically modified ingredients. So if non-GMO is tacked on, it’s just for looks. Think of it as a square-rhombus situation. If something is certified organic, it’s always non-GMO, but something that’s non-GMO certified is not always organic.
2. Certified Transitional
This one is fairly new but is gaining traction as a means of encouraging more conventional farmers to switch to organic farming practices. (Kashi is leading a big initiative on it and you may see the seal on their cereal boxes.) Basically, there’s a three-year waiting period for a farmer who wants to get the USDA Organic Certification, which is in place to make sure their soil is clear of any lingering chemicals. Farmers in that “transition,” however, are forced to invest in the switch to organic farming practices while still being paid the lower, conventional prices for their not-yet-organic crops. The Certified Transitional seal is basically saying to the consumer “I was grown without pesticides or herbicides by a farmer who’s going organic, even though I can’t say I’m organic yet!”
3. Animal Welfare Approved
If you want to make sure the animals you’re eating (or getting milk and eggs from) were really taken care of to the highest, highest standard, (you know, the chickens had friends) the Animal Welfare Approved seal is the one to look for. USDA Certified Organic does include provisions for animal welfare but they’re not very stringent. While new rules were recently proposed to make them align more with what people expect when they think of “organic,” they were struck down by the current administration.
Similarly, while you might think organic meat is also grass-fed, that’s not necessarily true. Beef from cows fed a certain percentage of grass with their diet supplemented with organic grains can still be certified organic. If you want the 100% grass-fed stuff, look for reliable standards like AGA’s Certified American Grassfed or PCO 100% Grassfed. Both have high standards for meat and dairy. The only difference is that American Grassfed’s standard doesn’t require producers are also certified organic, while PCO’s does.
5. Regenerative Organic Certification (ROC)
This one’s brand new, and it’s like the USDA Certified Organic standard went back to school and got a PhD. Essentially, it adds soil health, animal welfare, and social fairness (like living wages) provisions onto the organic rules to promote making even bigger changes to the way we produce food. It’s organic on planet-saving steroids. Expect to spot it on Dr. Bronner’s and Patagonia foods, soon.