May 12, 2016
Congratulations! Your cookies are a hit. They’re on the shelves of your local supermarket and demand is high. So you decide to develop a new range of healthy, low-sugar, vegan, raw, organic cookies — but can you list all of that on your label?
Packaging is a great opportunity to be creative within your brand — but it’s equally important that your label communicates with potential customers, and of course, icons and symbols are a quick, colorful way of displaying the health benefits of your product. Some of the seals are trademarked and regulated, however, so to help you keep your labels legal, here’s our guide to some of the more common seals.
Healthy foods have a wide choice of icons that can help communicate nutrition facts.
In the USA, use of the term ‘Organic’, as well as use of the Organic seals, is regulated by the USDA. Labeling your products as organic, or using the official organic seal, without certification, can lead to big fines. The exception is again for small businesses — food producers who gross less than $5000 in annual sales can use the term ‘organic’ (but not the seal) on their labels without certification.
The USDA itself doesn’t actually provide certification, however, so to become certified as organic, a third party certifier is needed. There are currently around 80 organizations authorized to certify farms and businesses, and most can provide certification for businesses anywhere in the world. Some of the largest certifiers include Oregon Tilth and Midwest Organic Services Association, Inc. The name of the third-party certifier must be included on your label once you are certified, use of their symbol is optional.
Businesses can become certified in any of the three categories below:
- 100% Organic: 100% of ingredients are organic, processing is 100% organic.
- Organic: 95% or more of ingredients are organic, some USDA-approved chemical additives may be used in processing.
- Made with Organic Ingredients: Certain ingredients are organic. (This statement can only be used on the ingredients panel on a label)
To label a food as Kosher it must meet the Kosher dietary laws. These are a set of intricate biblical laws that detail the types of food that a Jewish person may eat and the process it may be prepared. To use ‘Kosher’ on your label, therefore, every ingredient in your product and the process it was produced, must be certified as Kosher by a Rabbi.
Several Kosher certification agencies exist across the US to help with this process. Some of the larger agencies include Orthodox Union, OK Kosher and Star. Each has its own certification seal but businesses only need to get certified by one of these agencies. Foods that don’t contain meat or dairy can also be labeled as Pareve Kosher.
As the backlash against Genetically Modified Organisms (GMOs) increases, the use of Non-GMO symbols on packaging is also becoming more prevalent. Non-GMO, however, is currently a non-regulated term, so any food business can label themselves at Non-GMO. Nestle for instance, recently launched a range of cereals featuring their own, trademarked, Non-GMO symbol.
A common symbol, however, is from the Non-GMO project —a voluntary certification system which allows products to label themselves as genetically modified organism free.
Vegan is another term that is unregulated by the FDA and can be used on any product without official certification. Vegan is widely understood as a food products made with no ingredients from animal origins, where it can get a little fuzzy, however, is for foods made with honey — which some vegans also regard as off-limits.
To help remove the uncertainly for consumers, a few organizations offer vegan certification. The Vegan Society, for instance, allows products to use its widely recognized seal is products are free from animal ingredients, prepared separately from non-vegan foods and are free of GMO ingredients.
For consumers with Celiac disease, gluten-free identification is particularly important. To use ‘Gluten-free’ or any variation such as ‘no-gluten’ or ‘free of gluten’, the product must meet the FDA standard of less than 20 parts per million (ppm) of gluten.
As gluten is only found in wheat, rye, barley, and other grains, products that contain no grain can confidently label themselves as gluten-free (carrot juice for instance), but for products that do contain grain, it’s useful to get certification from the Gluten-Free Certification Program (GFCP). Certified products can use the trademarked seal and also need to complete an annual audit with the GFCP.
Glycemic Index labeling is a useful indicator for anyone who needs a low sugar diet. Foods with a glycemic index of less than 55 are considered low-GI. It is possible to look up the GI rating of individual ingredients, but testing is required to determine the GI number for finished products. The Glycemic Research Institute is one of the organizations that provides testing.
Consumers following a raw food diet are looking for products that have been minimally processed and still retain all of the nutrients and vitamins that are usually lost in cooking. Raw is another unregulated term, and its definition is a little vague, but it’s generally accepted to include foods that are unpasteurized and haven’t been heated above 118ºF.
As an unregulated term, any food can be labeled as raw — but to help create an create an industry wide standard for consumers, The Raw Collective does offer a certification and use of their official seal, for foods that “do not exceed temperatures of 118ºF during any phase of handling, including production, processing, storage, and transportation”.
For raw foods it’s also important to include the applicable warnings mandated by the FDA.
Rainforest Alliance Certified
This certification is for products that contain bananas, cocoa, coffee, palm oil and tea sourced from Rainforest Alliance Certified farms or forests. These farms and forests must meet certain “environmental, social and economic criteria designed to conserve wildlife; safeguard soils and waterways; protect workers, their families and local communities; and increase livelihoods in order to achieve true, long-term sustainability.”
Made in the USA
Another unregulated term — and for small batch foods there are advantages to being even more specific with your origin, e.g. made in Illinois, made in Chicago.
A Made in USA self-certification does exist, however. In order to be eligible a business must Make or grow a product or service that is “all or virtually all” made in the United States.
Forest Stewardship Council (FSC)
The FSC seal that appears on products is not related the food product, but its packaging. FSC certification ensures that products come from responsibly managed forests that provide environmental, social and economic benefits. To use this on your paper-based packaging, the paper must be sourced from an FSC certified forest and the packaging must be produced in an FSC certified plant.
Facts Up Front
Facts Up Front
An increasing number of food manufacturers are now taking part in facts up front, a “voluntary front-of-pack nutrition labeling system” championed by Michelle Obama. Food producers are encouraged to use the lozenge shaped icons to highlight the calories, saturated fat, sodium and sugars in a product. Two additional icons can also be used to highlight potassium, fiber, protein, vitamin A, vitamin C, vitamin D, calcium or iron content, as long as they are above 10% of the recommended daily allowance.
A similar system is used in the UK and EU, with the addition of a traffic light color coding system (green for good!) — so it’s not uncommon to see color coded lozenges on US packages too.
Any claims you make on your product must be “truthful and not misleading”, otherwise the FDA can take action against a false claim. Unauthorized use of trademarked symbols and seals can also lead to fines, or require you to pull your product from the shelves.
For bootstrapping start-ups it may be tempting to use a cut-rate designer — but when it comes to your labels, that approach could end up costing you in the long-run. US labeling laws also differ state to state, always hire a designer who is up to speed on current regulations and consult the advice of a lawyer.
About The Author: Ian Everett is a freelance writer and studio manager at www.prettylethaldesigns.com — a branding studio for businesses who make, bake, brew, craft, grow & create.