Natural Products Gatekeepers: Certification Overload

So who are the natural product industry gatekeepers of today? In Part 1, I mentioned that natural food stores used to be the sole trusted gatekeepers, both in terms of the quality (i.e., sourcing) of the food, and with regard to its “healthiness” (i.e., not overly processed or refined, too much sugar, etc. — I’ll describe what I mean by this word later).

Today the gatekeepers are really who you want them to be: third-party certifications, store staff, medical practitioners, and even manufacturers. They all have their pluses and minuses, and we’ll be exploring certifications in this post.

Certification Overload

Pick up just about any supplement or natural food, and on it you’ll see a variety of third-party certification seals. The seals most important to the consumer are usually on the front of the label, while the ones that mean more to the stores are on the back. It’s not uncommon for whole grain staples to have as many as six certification seals on their label’s front.

What these certifications aim to tell you are sourcing stories and what’s not in the product. USDA Organic and Demeter Certified Biodynamic speak to how the ingredients are grown. Non-GMO Verified and Gluten-Free speak to what the product is not. Fair Trade and Certified Humane speak to how the workers or animals are treated. NSF and Global Food Safety Initiative (GFSI) speak to safety and GMPs.

But here’s the rub: they all subtly imply that the food is good for you, while none of them actually certify it. You can be a certified organic, fair trade, and non-GMO candy bar that is just as bad for you as the conventional version. I constantly run into people who think that because it’s organic or non-GMO, it’s good for you.

There is also confusion about what these certifications really mean.

The most dramatic confusion is between certified organic vs. non-GMO. Our research and other studies show that people think non-GMO is better than organic, and that the quality of the food is better. Actually, you can spray the heck out of a non-GMO tomato with pesticides and herbicides and still get verified.

There’s even more confusion about whether an organic food can come from a genetically engineered seed — how could that happen?

Certification Overlap

All certifying organizations, except for the USDA Organic certification, are privately held. They may be non-profit, but they rely on certifying food for their revenue. I’m not calling into question their ethical standards or their good intentions, but they are businesses. That is why there is very little in the way of reciprocity between certifying groups. If there were, there wouldn’t be as much money to make.

For example, to be certified organic means that you are not using genetically engineered foods. So why can’t you automatically be Non-GMO verified? I don’t want to be cynical because I know the Non-GMO verified group is doing good work, but they really dance around that issue. In their FAQ, when asked why a company should have its products Non-GMO Project verified if its products are already USDA Certified Organic, they state, “The Non-GMO Project is designed to honor the NOP’s excellent guidelines for traceability and segregation and build on the work that certified organic companies are already doing, with the added measure of ongoing testing of risk ingredients at critical control points.”

Yes, they have “added measures” to justify the company paying for another certification. But in the end, companies and farmers pay for these certifications — and that hurts the little guys who are doing it all correctly. In order for them to compete with the bigger companies, they have to pay for these additional certifications that are often redundant. That’s a lot of gates to get to the goods.

What’s Good About Certifications

Overall, these certifications are better for the planet. They tell you that manufacturers are concerned about the growing practices, the seed health, the safety and quality of the processing, and the wellbeing of the workers. These are all important and they should impact how we choose products.

To combat the redundancy and overload issues I mention above, there are two organizations that are helping:

The folks at HowGood are taking the expense away from the manufacturers and growers and putting it on the retailers. They collect data from over 350 sources and have rated over 200,000 products. They look at sourcing, production and organization, and they then rate the product with “Good for the world,” “Great for the world,” or “Best for the world.” The retailer pays HowGood for the right to place these ratings on their shelves next to their products, and there is data to show incremental sales increase for the products identified.

The Coalition for Supplement Sustainability is a member-driven trade association of the dietary supplement industry that maintains sustainable, independently verifiable, and transparent standards across the entire dietary supplement supply chain. They work with third-party verification organizations to set the standards so that the supplement companies can figure out how to be non-GMO certified, for example.

What Certifications Don’t Do

They don’t evaluate the “healthiness” of the food. I picked that word because it rhymes with “truthiness,” the term Stephen Colbert made famous. Truthiness refers to the quality of preferring concepts or facts one wishes or believes to be true, rather than concepts or facts known to be true. How healthy a food is can be interpreted in so many ways, and it usually has an agenda attached to it. So who do you trust about that? Your doctor? Your nutritionist? Sally Fallon, Michael Pollan, The Food Babe, or Rachael Ray? Your lawyer? Your mom?

Certifications tell you a part of the story, and thus are partial gatekeepers. For Part 3 in this series, we’ll look at the store staff and the surprising gatekeeper role they play in the natural products industry.