Some product labels are loosely regulated at best, and others are downright misleading. Here's the skinny on the standards, who sets them, and how.
What it says: ORGANICYou think it means: Heaven-sent manna, completely devoid of any synthetic or artificial substanceIt actually means: Not as artificial as it could beThe standard: Organic food is grown without pesticides, hormones, synthetic fertilizers, artificial flavor enhancers, or genetically engineered organisms. The U.S. organic standard as set by the Department of Agriculture is 554 pages long and lists dozens of prohibited ingredients, from arsenic to strychnine. Certain enzymes, acids, and waxes, however, pass the feds' organic test.Certified by: Federally authorized "certifying agents"-paid outside auditorsProducers say:Beware of: Food that says it's "made with" organic ingredients. This is not the same as "organic." Look for the USDA seal.What it says: FAIR TRADEYou think it means: Short-circuiting a system that forces some men to pick beans so others can recline in coffee shopsIt actually means: Tipping farmers on other continentsThe standard: Suppliers have to meet an international standard for wages, labor rights, and working conditions. Small worker-run farming cooperatives are preferred suppliers, and are guaranteed a set minimum price for their crops.Certified by: TransFair USA, a private nonprofitProducers say:Beware of: Nestlé, the world's largest food company, which just this year began marketing a Fair Trade Certified coffee product, perhaps to smooth over well-documented allegations of using child slaves to harvest cocoa in Africa.What it says: ALL NATURALYou think it means: From the earth's very bosom, unadulterated by the foul hand of manIt actually means: Less "natural" than organic, making it about as natural as polyesterThe standard: The FDA allows "all natural" to appear on products that don't contain added colors or "artificial flavors." Some plant and animal derivatives like high-fructose corn syrup qualify as "natural" but must appear in the product's ingredients list.Certified by: No one, though companies face big federal penalties if they lie on their labels. Caveat emptor.Producers say:Beware of: What it says: DOLPHIN SAFEYou think it means: No dolphins were harmed or killed during the making of this tunaIt actually means: Dolphin-friendlyThe standard:Certified by: Observers from the Inter-American Tropical Tuna CommissionProducers say:Beware of: Not much. The dolphin-safe label is a big success. The number of dolphins killed by fisherman in the tropical Pacific fell from 132,000 in 1986 to less than 1,500 in 2004, according to the IATTC.What it says: NOT ANIMAL TESTEDYou think it means: The makers of this toothpaste or mascara product would never hurt a fly, let alone a rabbitIt actually means:The standard: Companies agree to conduct no animal testing, but may still market products and ingredients that were tested on animals in the past. All suppliers must also make a written commitment to stop testing. Overall, the standard is fairly rigorous, developed by an international coalition that includes the Humane Society.Certified by: A private independent auditor, every three yearsProducers say:Beware of: The words "cruelty-free" and "not tested on animals"-they are meaningless without the leaping bunny logo. Also, keep an eye on animal-friendly Tom's of Maine, which was recently acquired by Colgate-Palmolive.What it says: LOW FATYou think it means:It actually means: Less fat (though perhaps more sugar and flavor engineering)The standard: In the U.S., "Low Fat" means no more than three grams of fat per serving. "Fat Free" means less than half a gram per serving. Entreés and main courses are granted a bit of a loophole-no more than 30 percent of their calories can come from fat.Certified by: The FDA sets the standard, but there are no regular outside auditsProducers say:Beware of: Two-percent milk. Thanks to the dairy lobby, it is labeled "reduced fat," even though it contains 62 percent of the fat found in "whole" milk. Also, remember that not all fats are created equal. Saturated, tropical, and trans fats are bad.