What Do the Seals and Certifications on Food Packaging Mean?

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Every packaged food sold in the United States comes with a nutrition facts label—a useful panel that lists info about calories, macronutrients, vitamins, and minerals. But some foods go the extra mile with additional labels on the package. You’ve probably noticed an array of seals and certifications—such as “Fair Trade,” “Certified Gluten-Free,” and “Kosher Certified,” to name a few—dotting the sides (or tops or bottoms) of many of your store-bought foods.

So what do all these extra labels actually mean? And can food manufacturers simply slap an official-sounding certification on their products to boost the product's health halo?

Fortunately, food certifications are generally far more stringent than popping a sticker on the side of a cereal box or milk carton. Here’s what you need to know about the various seals and certifications on packaged foods.

Seals and Certificates Versus Claims

First, a word about seals and certificates versus health claims on foods.

Food seals and certificates are most often administered by a third party rather than a governmental organization. While the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) acknowledges and accredits some third-party organizations, it doesn’t maintain strict oversight over their guidelines. So if you have specific questions or concerns about a seal or logo on your food, you’ll typically need to research the certification company’s set of standards.

On the other hand, the FDA has very specific rules and regulations for health claims on food packaging. Manufacturers' “health claims” are limited to claims about disease reduction (but can’t be about the diagnosis, cure, or treatment of specific diseases). For example, an oatmeal product may include wording about how soluble fiber may reduce the risk of heart disease—but couldn’t claim that eating oats will keep you from having a heart attack.

Similarly, so-called “structure/function” claims may describe how certain nutrients affect health without referring to specific conditions (such as “calcium builds strong bones”). Food manufacturers may submit health claims and structure/function claims for FDA approval.

7 Certificates to Look For

While there are many product claims and seals that food manufacturers create to boost the purchase appeal of their product, there are also many well-respected, established certificates to look for.

The following certificates can help you make educated purchasing decisions based on your dietary needs, ethical beliefs, and quality standards. While these certifications don't necessarily correlate with nutrient quality (a USDA organic cookie is still a cookie), they may help to inform your purchase decisions.

USDA Organic

USDA Organic Symbol

Getty Images / Ihor Kashurin

Although most food seals and labels are granted by non-governmental authorities, the USDA’s organic label is one exception. The National Organic Program, which confers organic labels, falls under the umbrella of the USDA’s Agricultural Marketing Service.

“Organic” foods—as opposed to “conventional” foods—may have many definitions, depending on who you ask, but for official USDA purposes, they must be grown and processed according to Federal guidelines that address soil quality, animal raising practices, pest and weed control, and the use of additives.

The USDA maintains four different categories for organic products, including Organic, 100% Organic, “Made With” Organic Ingredients, and Specific Organic Ingredients—each of which comes with its own specifications.

No matter which product you choose, selecting an organic product means that the item has less exposure to potentially harmful pesticides and antibiotics than its conventional counterpart.

Non-GMO Project Verified

Non GMO Project Label

Courtesy of NewHopeNetwork.com

Over the last few decades, as more products have been grown with genetic modifications, many consumers have developed safety concerns about eating foods that contain GMOs (genetically modified organisms). Studies and experts have argued for both the pros and cons of GMOs, and their use remains controversial.

If you prefer to keep GMOs out of your diet, the Non-GMO Project Verified certification is a label to watch for. The Non-GMO Project’s logo (of a butterfly alighting on a blade of grass) indicates that a product meets the organization’s standards document—now on its 16th version since 2007.

While this document contains numerous guidelines, the primary take-home message is this: foods with this label must contain less than 0.9% genetically modified ingredients.

Kosher Certified

OU Kosher Symbol

Courtesy of OUKosher.org

This certification is critical for those who follow the Jewish dietary regulations known as keeping kosher. In a kosher diet, certain foods must be kept off the menu, including meat from pigs, camels, squirrels, and predatory birds. Pairings of certain foods, such as milk and meat, are also forbidden. Meanwhile, kosher-certified foods must be processed using kosher utensils and kosher equipment.

In the United States, there are numerous regulating bodies that oversee kosher certifications. You may see certifications from O-U (whose symbol is a U inside a circle), KOF-K (whose logo is a K inside the Hebrew letter kof), OK (whose logo features a K inside a circle), and star-K (whose emblem is a K inside a star). You can be certain that foods with any of these demarcations have been prepared according to Jewish dietary regulations.

On some kosher products, you may see additional labeling indicating a food is dairy, meat, or "parve" (sometimes spelled “pareve”). In Jewish dietary law, parve foods are considered neutral, containing neither meat nor milk. This means they can be combined with either milk or meat. Raw produce, kosher fish, sugar, and eggs, for example, may be labeled as parve.

Non-Jewish people may find this labeling useful for making dietary choices that don’t include milk or meat.

Halal Certified

Halal

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Islam, too, has its own dietary regulations, known as Halal (the Arabic word for “permissible”). Several third-party organizations exist to confirm that foods fall in line with Islamic diet practices, which may refer to how an animal was slaughtered, whether a food includes alcohol, the cleansing of utensils, or many other guidelines.

Halal Watch World, The American Halal Foundation, and ISWA Halal Certification are just a few who offer halal certification in the United States. Look for the word “halal” in English or Arabic on food packaging.

Fair Trade Certified™

Fair Trade Certified

Courtesy of FairTradeCertified.Org

A Fair Trade food certification isn’t necessarily about the food itself, but about the way it was produced—which is why you’ll also see other products, like clothing, beauty products, and home goods bearing this symbol. To become Fair Trade Certified, food producers must meet a set of standards that includes ensuring safe working conditions and a sustainable livelihood for employees, protecting the environment, and investing in community development funds.

Marine Stewardship Council

MSC Symbol

Courtesy of MSC.org

Want to know if your seafood is sustainable? A Marine Stewardship Council (MSC) certification is a good sign. The MSC is a third-party organization that assesses the impact of commercial fisheries on wild fish populations and their ecosystems.

When fisheries meet MSC standards for issues like preventing overfishing and only fishing healthy stocks, they can earn this oval-shaped blue seal. Acquiring an MSC certification often takes years and is an ongoing process. Annual surveillance and re-certification every five years are required.

Certified Gluten-Free

Certified Gluten-Free

Courtesy of GFCO.org

Since about one in 133 people has celiac disease and many more experience sensitivity to gluten, there’s a significant portion of the population seeking out gluten-free foods. However, the regulations surrounding gluten-free labeling can be a bit confusing.

Essentially, “gluten-free” and “certified gluten-free” are not the same thing. Per FDA rules, labeling food as gluten-free is voluntary (so naturally gluten-free foods like apples or steak aren’t mandated to disclose that they don’t contain gluten). When food manufacturers do choose to label their products as gluten-free, however, the FDA requires the foods to contain less than 20 parts per million of gluten.

Some manufacturers choose to provide extra assurance to consumers by acquiring a Certified Gluten-Free label. This certification is provided by third-party companies like NSF, BRCGS, and GFCO, which each have their own standards for conferring certification. NSF, for example, requires foods to contain less than 15 parts per million of gluten, while GFCO requires 10 or less.

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7 Sources
Verywell Fit uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. Food and Drug Administration. Food Labeling Guide. January 2013.

  2. U.S. Department of Agriculture. Understanding the USDA Organic Label. Feb 21 2017.

  3. Consumer Reports. Seal: Non-GMO Project Verified. 2021.

  4. Beyond Celiac. Celiac Disease: Fast Facts. 2021.

  5. Food and Drug Administration. Gluten and Food Labeling. July 16, 2018.

  6. NSF. Gluten-Free Certification. 2021

  7. Gluten-Free Certification Organization. About Us. 2021.