Sustainability in the Supermarket: A Sustainable Shopping Glossary

Sustainability in the Supermarket: A Sustainable Shopping Glossary

If you've ever wandered through the aisles of a grocery store perplexed by terms like organic, fair trade, or non-GMO, you're not alone. Such claims baffle many shoppers – especially those concerned with the sustainability of what they're eating.

Reel Paper Sustainability in the Supermarket: A Sustainable Shopping Glossary

Today's foods are covered in so many different labels that it can be hard to keep track of what they all mean.

We've put together a guide to help you understand common sustainable food terms and make your grocery shopping experience a little easier.

Certified Food Labels

Every food producer in history has made some claim or another about their products. Today, many of those claims come in the form of food labels. Certain labels must be certified by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA), or a reliable third party.

Although this isn't a complete list, here are some of the most common certified food claims.


Organic is one of the most common but least understood terms. Certified directly by the USDA, organic foods undergo a thorough process that analyzes everything from seed planting practices to the health and welfare of livestock.

Foods labeled "USDA Organic" promote the well-being of humans and animals, as well as the sustainability of our planet.


According to the Non-GMO Project, non-GMO foods contain no more than 0.9% genetically modified organisms (GMOs). All certified non-GMO foods are regularly tested to ensure that they meet the organization's set standards.

A 2014 Consumer Reports study found that many products advertised as "natural" or "non-GMO" did, in fact, contain GMOs. The study encourages shoppers to look specifically for the "Non-GMO Project Verified" label.

Fair Trade

Another commonly used – and confused – term is fair trade. According to Fair Trade USA, a fair trade certification ensures that "producers, workers, farmers, and fishermen have the money needed to invest in their lives and their work."

Fair trade products also help foster environmental sustainability and community well-being. Despite generally being more expensive, they're also a sound investment in food, farmers, and the planet.


Sustainability is a huge consideration for plenty of people when it comes to deciding what to eat. Two primary agencies handle sustainable food claims: the Marine Stewardship Council certifies seafood, and the Rain Forest Alliance approves all agricultural products.

Sustainable foods are produced in facilities that protect crop diversity, conserve natural resources, and minimize their impact on the environment.

Non-Certified Labels

While many certified food labels certainly exist, several foods still lack regulation and certification. Unfortunately for the majority of the companies who produce these foods, a certifying organization simply doesn't exist to verify their products.

The following claims aren't certified, but many of them still promote sustainability and well-being.

Hormone-Free/No Hormones Administered

Some products are labeled "Hormone-Free" or "No Hormones Administered," meaning producers have not used any artificial growth hormones on their livestock.

No certification or certifying agency currently exists to confirm these claims; however, the USDA has defined both terms and can hold producers accountable for using them improperly.


The FDA defines a "natural" food as one that doesn't contain anything that wouldn't be normally found in that food – including all food-coloring products.

Although the FDA has defined the term, it has no rules in place to regulate these "natural" foods. The definition also fails to address sustainability, which means the effect of "all-natural" foods on the environment is still a mystery.

Keep Sustainability in Mind When You Shop

Today, organic, fair trade, and non-GMO food products inundate grocery stores everywhere.

The food we eat has a major impact on our lives and communities. Some foods promote the well-being of farmers and animals, while others are pillars of sustainability.

At the end of the day, understanding these claims is important for anyone trying to make educated food choices.

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