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Food Labels That Deserve Your Dollars


“Cage-Free” Eggs? “Dolphin Safe” Tuna?: ShopSmart’s Exclusive Guide to Deciphering Food Labeling and Avoiding Rip-Offs

It’s getting so easy to buy what seems to be better-for-you-and-the-planet versions of your favorite products with organic versions food such as Oreos, Ragu pasta and Kraft Macaroni & Cheese now available. According to a report featured in the April/May 2008 issue of ShopSmart, from the publisher of Consumer Reports, foods certified “organic” are often worth the extra money, but watch out for other labels that can fake you out, since many appear on products without government regulation or verification from independent agencies.

“Labels can make a product sound healthful or planet-friendly, even when it is not, tricking you into wasting money,” said Lisa Lee Freeman, editor-in-chief, ShopSmart. “Before you splurge on a product based on a label, check out our guide to which labels you can trust and which don’t deserve your dollars.”

ShopSmart’s feature also includes advice on how to tell what’s truly cruelty-free, when it pays to shop at the farmers market, and lists some of the top humane restaurant and supermarket chains.

What’s Worth It and What’s Not?

Meat, poultry, eggs and dairy

Labels including “USDA Organic/Organic,” “Not Treated with rBGH,” “No Hormones Administered or Added” and “Certified Humane” are the real deal. Products labeled “No Antibiotics Used or Administered/Raised without Antibiotics,” “No Hormones Administered” and “Grass-Fed” might also be worth it, although there are loopholes that may make them less meaningful. Buyer beware as “Free Range,” “Free Roaming,” “Cage-Free” and “Natural” have such loose requirements that animals could still have been mistreated.

Coffee and chocolate

Coffee and chocolate marked “USDA Organic/Organic,” “Fair Trade Certified,” “Rainforest Alliance Certified” and “Bird Friendly” are worth the extra cost. A label that might not be worth it is “Shade-Grown” as this label is not associated with a certifying organization.



The USDA has not yet developed organic certification standards for seafood, so it never pays to buy organic.  Fish could be labeled organic despite the presence of contaminants such as mercury and PCBs. “Dolphin Safe” and “Marine Stewardship Council” labels also lack sufficient regulation, yet “Farm-Raised” and “Wild-Caught” are government regulated and might be worth it, depending on the type of fish you are buying. For example, opt for wild-caught salmon but farm-raised tilapia.

Fruits, vegetables, beverages, pasta, oils and packaged foods

“USDA Organic/Organic” is the way to go for produce, but on packaged foods you’ll see different organic labels: “100% Organic,” “Organic” (95% of ingredients are organic) and “Made with Organic Ingredients” (70% of ingredients are organic). The label “Biodynamic” is stricter and worth the extra dollars, but is also tougher to find.

How To Save On Organics

Get more for your money at the grocery store with these seven tips from the experts at ShopSmart.

1. Prioritize purchases

If you have to pick and choose, go for organic produce, baby food, meat, poultry, eggs and dairy. The conventional versions of these tend to be more contaminated with pesticides and potential toxins.

2. Search the Web for coupons

Many major organic brands, including Stonyfield Farm, Annie’s Homegrown, Organic Valley, Earthbound Farm and Heath Valley, offer coupons at their Web sites.

3. Shop at discount stores and comparison shop for specific items

Large discount chains like Sam’s Club, Costco, Wal-Mart and Target now carry organics and claim that their prices are lower than those of most other retailers. But be sure to check prices on frequently purchased items at different stores to see which retailer sells them for the lowest price.

4. Look for store-brand organics and bulk packaging

Examples include Whole Foods Market’s 365 Organic Everyday Value, Safeway’s O Organics, Stop & Shop’s/Giant’s Nature’s Promise, Kroger’s Private Selection Organic, Trader Joe’s and others that often cost less than national brand names.

5. Buy from bulk bins

You can now find organic rice, flour, beans, granola, nuts, pasta and peanut butter for less in bulk bins at many grocery stores.

6. Join a food co-op

They are independent grocery stores that usually offer local and organic foods. Some have a membership fee and may require members to volunteer at the co-op for a few hours each moth. Members get a discount when they shop. To find a local co-op, go to or

7. Buy lots of fresh fruits and vegetables in season

That’s when prices are lowest. If possible, freeze or preserve produce for later. You may be able to get a discount from local farmers by buying membership in a community- supported agriculture program and sharing it with friends.

About ShopSmart magazine:
Launched in Fall 2006 by Consumers Union, publisher of Consumer Reports, ShopSmart draws upon Consumer Reports’ celebrated tradition of accepting no advertisements and providing unbiased product reviews. The magazine features product reviews, shopping tips on how to get the most out of products and “best of the best” lists. ShopSmart is ideal for busy shoppers who place a premium on time. ShopSmart has a newsstand price of $4.99 and over a half a million copies of each issue are available nationwide at major retailers including Barnes & Noble, Target, Wal-Mart, Borders, Kroger, Safeway and Publix.
ShopSmart is now available for subscriptions.  Visit


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