Behind the Label: Sustainability Certifications and Seals
By Colleen Christensen, RDN , a registered dietitian nutritionist and consultant dietitian who works with Clif Bar & Company.
The ideas and suggestions written below are provided for general educational purposes only and should not be construed as medical advice or care. Always seek the advice of a physician or other qualified health provider before beginning any physical fitness or health- and nutrition-related activity.
You’ve likely seen posts on social media or online discussing the idea of eating sustainably or browsed a grocery aisle in search of more sustainable options. With all the different labels and terminology, from plant-based and organic, to farm-raised vs. wild-caught, it can feel like information overload! It can be hard to know how to make choices that can positively impact your health, our planet, and the lives of those around us. That’s where I come in. As a registered dietitian, one of my jobs is to help sort through the confusion and give you the facts and tools you need to make more informed food choices.
Why Are Sustainability Seals & Certifications Important?
Sustainability seals and certifications are one way that eating sustainably is made WAY easier for you! Third-party sustainability seals and certifications provide assurance to help you to feel more confident in your sustainable food choices! This is important since nearly 8 in 10 consumers say sustainability is important to them when seeking out products or brands.1
These icons provide a quick reference when you’re shopping for foods so you can identify more sustainable options easily. Certain seals and certifications are indicators of how a food was raised or grown, how the workers were treated in the process or what things the food may be “free from”, to name a few. Many are backed by government agencies and non-profit organizations that have created rigorous standards, which foods carrying the mark must meet or exceed.
Which Sustainability Seals & Certifications Should You Look For?
There are many different seals and certifications, and some are more trusted than others. Below are a few useful explanations of seals to keep watch for:
You may have seen this seal and thought to yourself, “How is organic different from conventional?” or “Is organic agriculture regenerative?” In many ways, organic farming is the original regenerative practice! Organic farming conserves and restores biodiversity and stores carbon in the soil (where it increases soil fertility) instead of releasing it into the atmosphere.
More specifically, foods carrying the USDA Organic Seal meet a set of rigorous standards outlined by the U.S. Department of Agriculture. These standards are designed to help build soil health, protect natural habitats, and prohibit the use of certain chemicals. The USDA Organic Seal can be found on many kinds of food and beverage products from meats and eggs to produce and whole grains. And remember, food that is certified organic is non-GMO and much more!
In 2020, Clif Bar & Company sourced 125 million pounds of organic ingredients, about 78% of the total ingredients used for the year! You can find the USDA Organic seal on many of your favorite Clif products from CLIF® Nut Butter Bar to CLIF Kid Zbar®.
Rainforest Alliance Certified™
Rainforest Alliance is an international non-profit organization working at the intersection of business, agriculture, and forests. They aim to create a better future for people and nature by making responsible business the new normal.
The Rainforest Alliance green frog seal stands for a better future for people and nature. Certified farms are better and safer places to live and work, where human rights must be respected. Farmers receive training which addresses issues like child labor and promotes gender equality and non-discrimination.
Rainforest Alliance also works to achieve better livelihoods for farmers and workers, for example, by encouraging farmers to use good agricultural practices that help improve crop yields and reduce costs. A third-party study commissioned by the Rainforest Alliance found certified cocoa farms in Côte d’Ivoire increased net income by 258% and yields increased by 73%.
As part of their program, farmers must protect natural resources and the environment by using land, water, and energy carefully. Farmers on certified farms use fewer artificial fertilizers and pesticides, preventing pollution and managing waste. They learn how to preserve forested and protected areas, which in turn helps support the biodiversity of plants and animals. Farmers and farmworkers are also trained to use climate-smart farming methods and to adapt to the effects of the climate crisis.
The Rainforest Alliance certification has comprehensive social, economic, and environmental commitments that closely match Clif Bar & Company’s Five Aspirations business model and values. Today, 100% of the cocoa ingredients used in Clif Bar & Company foods, like Chocolate Chip CLIF BAR® and Chocolate & Peanut Butter CLIF® Nut Butter Bar, are organic or sourced from Rainforest Alliance Certified farms.2
Fairtrade certified products meet internationally agreed social, environmental, and economic Fairtrade Standards that protect the well-being of farmers, workers, fishermen, and the environment in more than 60 countries around the world. These standards are tailor-made for each industry to ensure all producers are working together toward the same goal and are reviewed at least every five years.
The FAIRTRADE Mark is the symbol of the international Fairtrade system and is one of the most globally recognized ethical labels. There are a few types of FAIRTRADE Marks you may see while shopping for some of your kitchen staples. Some single-ingredient products, like bananas and coffee, are fully traceable from farm to shelf and bear a black FAIRTRADE Mark. The white FAIRTRADE Mark indicates individual ingredients have been sourced as Fairtrade – like the coffee found in the CLIF BAR® Coffee Collection.
Since 1998, Fair Trade’s Community Development Fund has invested more than $830 million to improve infrastructure, education, and increase income to support sustainable livelihoods for individuals and communities.
What Are Practical Tips for Eating More Sustainably?
Not all foods carry a label, so how can you be sure you’re eating an overall more nutritious and sustainable diet? The foundation of any healthy, sustainable diet starts with fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and plant-based proteins like nuts, seeds, and legumes. But, plant-based doesn’t have to mean plant-exclusive. Make plants the star, but remember that small amounts of lean meat, poultry, fish, seafood, eggs, and dairy can be included. Here are three RD-approved tips:
1. Eat a wide variety of plant-based foods
Fresh fruits and veggies are great but canned and frozen are an affordable and convenient option as well! You can also look for “sustainability shortcuts” by choosing canned beans or legumes, frozen grains like quinoa or brown rice, and on-the-go options like CLIF® Nut Butter Bar.
2. Research company practices & values
When purchasing products, think beyond ingredients and taste alone. Look for brands with transparent commitments and measurable initiatives around things like environmental, socioeconomic, sourcing, and nutrition standards. You can also look for things like zero waste practices, green power, eco-friendly packaging, and paying employees a living wage.
3. Make it a weekly tradition
Try picking one day each week to eat entirely plant-forward. Here is a sample of what a plant-based day may include for this RD:
On mornings that I head out for a long run to clear my head before a busy day, I love to first fuel up with a CLIF BAR®. Its unique blend of carbohydrates, alongside smaller amounts of “good” fats and plant-based protein, gives me the fuel I need to sustain my energy and keep me running.
I love cutting into a tall stack of pancakes! I enjoy making oat flour pancakes for a whole grain and fiber boost. Topping them with some peanut butter and berries allows for an extra nutrient punch!
Pack a plant forward sandwich for a quick and colorful lunch, no matter where your day takes you. Simply mash chickpeas and mix with smashed avocado as your spread, along with any spices or seasonings you like. Serve on whole grain bread with veggies like lettuce, cucumber, and tomato slices.
To recharge for the remainder of the day, I love to grab a CLIF® Nut Butter Bar. These bars are convenient, taste delicious and provide a balanced mix of satisfying nutrients, including 5–7g (8–10% DV) of plant protein. This helps me satisfy my hunger and bridge to dinner!
Black bean burritos make for a simple and tasty weeknight meal. Fill a tortilla with warmed black beans and sauteed onions, corn, and bell peppers. Top with salsa and enjoy!
Remember, when working to be more sustainable in your food choices it’s not about being “perfect” it’s about progress and doing what you can. Every effort helps!
- Institute For Business Value 2020, Meet the 2020 consumers driving change - Why brands must deliver on omnipresence, agility, and sustainability <www.ibm.com/downloads/cas/EXK4XKX8>
- Certified Ingredients From Around the World, Clif Bar & Company <www.clifbar.com/stories/certified-sustainable-ingredients-from-around-the-world>