It’s easy enough to spot organic food at the supermarket — just look for the government's “USDA Organic” label. But what if your favorite product’s label uses a term like “natural” or “certified naturally grown” instead? What does it mean?

First, here’s what the gold standard term, “organic,” means. Farmers, processors, handlers and online vendors who sell more than $5,000 per year must get permission from the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) before using it to describe their goods.

“The USDA organic seal assures consumers that a product has been produced through approved methods that foster cycling of resources, promote ecological balance and conserve biodiversity,” says USDA public affairs specialist Sam Jones-Ellard.

But many small, family-owned farms can't afford the government's often-hefty fees. Instead, many opt for third-party labels, often sponsored by non-profit organizations. Here are some of the most prominent ones.

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Certified Naturally Grown logo

Certified Naturally Grown (CNG). This label is the main alternative to the USDA Organic label and uses the same National Organic Program quality standards. So, while certified producers can't use the word “organic,” they can market their goods as having been grown under similar conditions.

(Photo: Certified Naturally Grown)

CNG uses fellow farmers, instead of paid government inspectors, to inspect farms that have applied for certification, which reduces paperwork and keeps fees low. In 2015, CNG says they approved slightly more than half of the applications for certification.

Food Alliance Certified logo(Photo: Food Alliance/Flickr)
Food Alliance Certified. The Food Alliance certifies food producers for their overall commitment to sustainable agricultural practices, instead of focusing on whether the ingredients meet the “organic” standard.

“We cover the issues that matter to you, including safe and fair working conditions, humane treatment of animals, and protection of the environment,” writes the group on its website.

So, for instance, Food Alliance looks at how a farm has managed to lessen the need for pesticides in the first place, such as planting crop rows further apart to improve air circulation and prevent mildew.

Most people don't realize that USDA Organic-certified products are allowed to contain certain pesticides and chemicals, according to Food Alliance spokesperson Matthew Buck. “Some of those substances do pose risks to human and environmental health depending on how they are used.”

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Non-GMO seal(Photo: Non-GMO Project)
Non-GMO Project Verified. This label was created by a network of healthy-foods retailers for products that are, more or less, free of genetically modified organisms (GMO). While foods with the “USDA Organic” label can’t contain GMOs, “Non-GMO Project Verified” lets consumers know a non-organic product is substantially GMO-free.

Their testing program has its limitations, however. The verified products might contain a small amount of GMO. For instance, if a GMO farm is located near a non-GMO farm, crops from both fields might cross-pollinate. So, farms qualify for the label when they use “consensus-based best practices” for avoiding genetically modified ingredients.

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Looking behind the label

To understand more about what a food product label means, do a bit of homework.

Visit the website of the company behind the claim. The USDA requires a web address on the product's packaging “where consumers can access more information about what the claim means,” according to Jones-Ellard.

Look for conflicts of interest. For example, is a grocery store chain certifying its own products and creating its own label? Look for evidence that an outside organization is auditing their program. “That's why independent, third-party certification is the gold standard for product claims,” says Buck.

Look for certification, not just advertising. If you see a reassuring word like “natural” or “eco-friendly” on the packaging, know that it doesn't necessarily mean anything. It might just be a generic advertising term with no definition.

“Someone can claim to be Eco-Friendly, but unless they detail exactly what that means and provide supporting evidence for the claim, I would be skeptical,” says Buck.

The Food and Drug Administration hasn't established a formal set of rules for the use of the word “natural.” But, it notes, “The agency has not objected to the use of the term if the food does not contain added color, artificial flavors, or synthetic substances.”

One exception is meat and poultry advertised as “natural,” which must be minimally processed and have no artificial ingredients, such as antibiotics or food coloring.

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David Arv Bragi is a freelance journalist and marketing consultant. He has been writing about health and safety issues since the 1990s and currently lives in Portland, Oregon.