Truong: OMG! GMOs?

Food and beverage companies are overdoing it with the logos and certifications.

by Valerie Truong | 1/25/18 1:30am

The other day, for several reasons, I bought a $6, 12-ounce bottle of Suja juice from Novack Cafe. The juice bottle was green. The biggest word on the front besides “Suja” was “organic” in all caps, and I like to imagine I’m a healthy person. I shook the bottle because all the good green stuff had settled to the bottom like a centrifuged vial of blood, twisted open the cap and took a sip. I immediately regretted my DBA-blowing purchase. Why was this juice spicy? I took another look at the front label and saw the word “ginger” printed among the other health buzzwords: kale, collard greens, spinach, spirulina, chlorella and two different kinds of grass. As a consumer, I fall quite easily for these labels. In addition to the wording and green coloring, three logos appeared prominently on the front of the bottle: USDA Organic, Non-GMO Project Verified and Cold Pressured Protected. The first two labels are verified by third-party certifiers to ensure they meet standards set by the USDA and the Non-GMO Project, respectively. Turn the same bottle around, and you find that the drink is also vegan, BPA free and certified pareve and gluten-free. Another flavor of Suja boasts of containing vegan Stevia but advertises honey as an ingredient on the same front side. If someone following a vegan diet wanted to drink this juice because it contained a vegan version of Stevia, they would need to find a different flavor since honey is derived from bees, rendering the drink not vegan. While some logos on food and beverages are necessary because they convey crucial information about the product, many are repetitive or misleading.

All Suja products are certified organic and non-GMO, but the latter is redundant. If a product is organic, it is inherently non-GMO. Each certification costs hundreds to thousands of dollars a year, depending on the revenue of the company. But Suja is not the only company to participate in redundant certification. GrandyOats, the granola company supplying oatmeal at Novack, displays its non-GMO, USDA Organic, pareve and gluten-free certifications, along with logos advertising that its product is 100 percent solar and vegan. Health-ade Kombucha boasts a whopping six certifications — USDA Organic, kosher, vegan, Non-GMO Project Verified, gluten-free and Certified R.A.W. — and four other claims: all-glass bottles, small batch, cold-pressed and real food processed.

The mix of certifications and company claims is confusing and overwhelming. In terms of labeling, three types of logos exist. The first is a certification, which is costly and must be renewed from year to year. A third party is brought in to guarantee that the product has met certain standards. Examples include organic, non-GMO, fair trade and vegan. The second type is membership, which is also costly to join and is focused on social and environmental justice. Third-party organizations verify that the company has met their requirements before allowing them to use their logo on products. Examples include Carbonfree, B Corps and the Sustainable Food Trade Association. The third and final type of logo is the claims logo, essentially claims that companies make about their products, but presented as a symbol. The information in these logos could be shown anywhere on the packaging and written in any font, shape or size, but many companies choose logos. Examples include Suja’s “Cold Pressured Protected,” free-range eggs, raw, dairy free, soy free and vegan icons. “Vegan” is included under both certifications and in-house claims. Some companies choose to certify their products officially, while others simply claim their products as vegan.

When companies place these three types of logos side by side on their packaging, it is difficult to tell which claims have been made by the company and which have been verified by an outside source. Most consumers will not research every logo so, upon seeing the first one, usually the organic logo, they assume the product must be healthy and produced ethically, especially if several other logos are stacked after it. Redundant and ambiguous labeling falls short of being a scam, but it is a powerful marketing strategy targeting the demographic of consumers who are trying to eat and drink healthier. Many companies are willing to spare the extra cost and logistical effort required for that second or third certification because they figure that the benefits will outweigh the costs — the potential profit gained from increased sales due to the label would likely offset the cost of the yearly certification. Companies may also be seeking validation for progress made towards achieving their goals, like using no pesticides or supporting local farmers.

Consumers are inundated daily with labels and logos on all sorts of food and beverages. That information is valuable if companies do not abuse the system. Labels such as the USDA Organic logo have set a standard for the growth of produce and ingredients without using pesticides, synthetic fertilizers, sewage sludge, genetically modified organisms, or ionizing radiation. To merit certification, producers must ensure that animals that produce meat, poultry, eggs and dairy products do not take antibiotics or growth hormones. However, the system only works as intended when steadfast rules are in place. Organic egg standards provide an important example. To be certified organic, egg-laying hens are required to have access to outdoor space. Currently, some farmers take advantage of a loophole allowing them to attach a gated, screened porch to the barn, which is considered outdoor space. Smaller farmers, who may genuinely let their hens roam outdoors end up receiving the same label, despite being more loyal to the intents of the certification. Self-proclaimed statements on logos are deceptive on their own, but even when it comes to official and supposedly more legitimate programs, lax regulation and ambiguous standards mean that the customer is no better informed. Those frustrated with unwarranted price premiums on products they enjoy or concerned about lackluster definitions have ample reason to demand more from the USDA.