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There are many ways in which one product can be more healthy than another product, for human or animal bodies or for the planet. However, some labeling can be misleading. Here are ten common labels and what they do and don’t say.


  • What it says: Made only from substances still in their native state, as they were created by Mother Nature.
  • What it doesn’t say: Not all natural substances are nontoxic!  Some examples of toxic natural substances are lead, ammonia, radon, asbestos, hemlock, and poppy. An example of a material made from a natural substance is turpentine (from pine trees). Many products are made from petroleum,  which is initially a natural substance.


  • What it says:The product is less likely to cause allergic reactions than other typical products.
  • What it doesn’t say: Only the more common allergens have been removed, in most cases. There may still be substances to which some people are strongly allergic. In addition, compromises may have been made when substituting for the offensive material, so that the product can still function. Some examples of substitute materials are petroleum-based substances or formaldehyde.


  • What it says: The substance does not cause sudden-onset health problems at concentrations normally used.
  • What it doesn’t say: A substance labeled “nontoxic” could still be over-used, at higher than “normal” concentrations. In that case it might indeed cause acute health problems. In addition, small amounts of the material over time could accumulate in the body and lead to chronic health problems. In those two cases, the material could still legally be labeled “nontoxic”.

USDA Organic

  • What it says: Grown without the use of pesticides, synthetic fertilizers, sewage sludge, genetically modified organisms, or ionizing radiation. Animals that produce meat, poultry, eggs, and dairy products do not take antibiotics or growth hormones. The U.S. Department of Agriculture certifies in their National Organic Program (NOP) farms as well as companies that handle or process foods.
  • What it doesn’t say: These foods may be either 100% organic (a single ingredient food, such as fruit, vegetable, meat, milk and cheese) or 95% to 100% organic (in the case of a multiple-ingredient food).
  • More information on the term “organic”

All Cotton

  • What it says: Made with 100% cotton fibers. Often used for fabric or stuffing,
  • What it doesn’t say: Cotton manufactured in the United States (as an example) is treated with huge amounts of chemicals in the field, such as as pest control, weed control, and fertilizer. In the mill, still more chemicals may be added, such as dyes, formaldehyde for wrinkle resistance, anti-stain chemicals which sometimes contain arsenic,  and so forth.

Made with Organic Cotton

  • What it says: Some of the fibers are organic cotton, but not all. Otherwise, it should say, “100% Organic Cotton”
  • What it doesn’t say: What are the other fibers?

No (or Low) Volatile Organic Compounds (VOC’s)

  • What it says: Does not contain (or contains a low amount of) a class of chemicals which are able to rapidly evaporate. These are found in solvents, paints, caulking, cleaning fluids, etc.
  • What it doesn’t say: There are actually VOC’s contained in some foods. Examples are lemons, garlic, onions, and bread baking in the oven! People who are allergic to these foods may be sensitive to their VOC’s, but otherwise they are not harmful.


  • What it says: “Unscented” or “Scent-free” indicate a product is without chemically or naturally added scent.
  • What it doesn’t say: That does not mean that chemicals related to scent have not been added. In some cases (especially in detergent) a masking fragrance is added to cover or counteract the original chemical fragrance. This results in the illusion of an unscented product, and a person who wishes to avoid perfumes is thereby fooled. He might be completely frustrated trying to discover the chemical source of his allergic reaction, because the detergent says it is unscented and it apparently is.

No Preservatives or Biocides

  • What it says: Nothing (no preservative) has been added to prevent or slow the decay process. Nothing (no biocide) has been added to kill micro-organisms, such as bacteria or fungi.
  • What it doesn’t say: There are natural preservatives and biocides, such as Vitamin C, that would not be harmful, but could protect against fungi, molds, and toxins in food. This is an example of a desirable additive. Also, there are household maintenance materials that you might want to be sure were not going to start to grow micro-organisms. A biocide added to bathroom caulk or wallpaper paste, for example, might be a good choice!

Made from Recycled Materials

  • What it says: All or part of the item has been made from a previously manufactured product.
  • What it doesn’t say:The percentage made from recycled material may be quite low. If it is 100%, the label will probably say so. Some of the recycled material may be scrap from the original manufacturing process, which is fine, of course! Some labels may indicate how much is “post consumer,” meaning that it came from consumer recycling programs rather than the factory floor.


  • What it says: Something which is susceptible to a natural biological decay process.
  • What it doesn’t say: In typical landfills, layers of trash are alternated with layers of clay. Even if materials are biodegradable, this system won’t permit it due to the tight compaction. Ironically, some materials are touted as NON-biodegradable, with the benefit that the broken down material cannot seep into the water table.


  • What it says:The item may either be reused in its present form or broken down and re-manufactured into something else.
  • What it doesn’t say: Though the potential for recycling is there, the reality is still falling short. Many communities don’t have recycling programs or those are not fully used. Companies that could use recycled material in the manufacture of their goods do not always do so, due to cost or technological problems.

Most of this information was found in the book Creating a Healthy Household : The Ultimate Guide for Healthier, Safer, Less-Toxic Living