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Food Labelling

Many food packets have labels on them to show you the ethics or production values of the product. But how do you know what the different labels mean, and which ones are the best to look for?

In this article we look at some of the ethical food labels to look for with vegan, fair trade, organic and palm oil free shopping in mind.

As an ethical shopper, there are a number of important labels and ingredients to consider when browsing the food aisle. However, many hidden ingredients and confusing labels can make ethical shopping a laborious and difficult task.

If you are interested in avoiding palm oil, what ingredients should you look for? We also highlight some of the certification schemes for vegan, organic, and fair trade food, as well as some animal welfare labels.

Palm-oil free

The demand for more palm oil plantations and increased deforestation is having a devastating impact on local communities, biodiversity and climate change. Many consumers are aware of the alarming consequences of palm oil and are trying to avoid the ingredient. However, this can seem a daunting task when around 50% of packaged supermarket items contain palm oil.

All food products sold in Europe must now clearly state in the ingredients list whether palm oil is used. They can't just say 'vegetable oil' any more. But much of the palm oil we consume is derivatives of the oil itself. It is important to try to avoid these derivatives as well because they make up about 60% of global palm oil use.

Image: palm oil derivatives

Selvabeat, a vegan and palm oil-free campaign, put together a handy guide to help you spot palm oil derivatives. You can also find a full list of names for palm oil on the Orangutang Alliance website.

Take a picture of this image, or memorise the four words, and it could help you spot over half of the fatty acid compounds that are often made from palm oil.

Alternatively, to ensure you are definitely buying products with zero palm oil or derivatives, use our palm oil free list. The list includes a range of biscuits, chocolates, chocolate spread, pet food and nut butter.

Image: Vegan Society

Vegan labels

If you are avoiding all animal products, the first step is to look out for the Vegan Society trademark logo which appears on over 65,000 products worldwide and guarantees that a product is vegan and not animal tested.

For products not carrying the logo, look out for a 'suitable for vegans' symbol.

However, some shops will use ‘vegetarian’ on a vegan product, even if it’s actually vegan too. Check out the Vegan Society's list of some of the vegan items in UK supermarkets.

The next step is to look at the ingredients.

Changes in food labelling laws means that all allergens now have to be highlighted in bold in the ingredients list. This means that all products containing dairy, eggs and fish will be clearly marked, making it slightly easier to decipher unusual ingredients and check whether a product is vegan or not. (Not all non-vegan ingredients are highlighted in bold though, for example gelatin, so you still probably want to check the rest of the ingredients.)

We also have a number of helpful ethical shopping guides that include vegan products. All our Best Buy recommendations in our guide to vegan and meat alternative foods are fully vegan brands. Our ethical guide to butter and spreads details specific brands that are suitable for vegans.

Logo: Soil Association

Organic labels

Organic indicates that no synthetic pesticides or fertilisers, or GM seeds, have been used. We have a short article which explains why buying organic food is important.

Organic labels are also useful for shoppers seeking higher animal welfare in their products. 'Organic' standards mean that animals must not be given any hormones, antibiotics or GMOs.

Look for the Soil Association logo, as this organic scheme sets even higher animal welfare standards than the EU organic requirements. For example it entirely prohibits mutilations of farm animals like tail docking and beak trimming. In fact, the Soil Association sets the highest animal welfare standards of any label in the UK, much stronger than, for example, Free Range.

Our article on organic food explains the benefits and challenges of organic farming.

Free range

Unfortunately, free range does not guarantee open space and prancing lambs in the way we often imagine.

Free range labelling varies for each animal. For eggs, minimum free-range standards mean many hens are kept in vast, multi-tiered sheds typically with 16,000 or more other birds, and few ever see daylight.  Animals may still be routinely fed GM foods or antibiotics.

To ensure higher animal welfare standards it is best to pick organic produce. While all organic food meets free range requirements (and beyond), free range produce doesn't have to be organic.

Read our article on animal rights and the food industry to find out more about different animal welfare certifications.

Logo of Fairtrade International

Fair trade labels

Unlike the term ‘organic’, fair trade doesn’t have a set definition under law. That means that brands can make fair trade or fairly traded claims without meeting any legal criteria.

Fairtrade certification from Fairtrade International is the leading label for fair trade products you can trust. It guarantees farmers a minimum price for their product above the market value (which protects them from price crashes). It guarantees workers a fair income and improved working conditions. And it shows that retailers are paying a ‘Fairtrade premium’ – a sum that is put into a social fund to be used by workers and farmers as they choose.

Fairtrade now certifies many products and ingredients, from nuts and sugar to tea and flowers.

Read our quick guide to fair trade food to find out more about the Fairtrade certification and alternative schemes.

Image: MSC label

MSC Fish

Established in 1997, the Marine Stewardship Council is the world's largest certification for seafood, its certified fisheries representing 14% of all fish catches, landing in ports around the world.

Three factors play into determining whether a fishery can be granted the MSC certification.

1. Sustainable fish stocks – maintaining high populations
2. Minimising environmental impact – managing fishing activities so that other species and habitats remain healthy
3. Effective management – respecting international laws and adapting to changing environmental circumstances

Ruth Westcott from environmental alliance Sustain says that when it comes to fish sustainability, it’s “definitely the best we’ve got”.

However, even in this area, its effectiveness has been called into question. In March 2022, the Netflix documentary Seaspiracy accused the MSC of certifying fisheries associated with high levels of by-catch – whereby dolphins, turtles and other animals are inadvertently captured along with the fish. MSC said the claims were “misleading”.

The label does not look at animal welfare. Our article on animal rights and the food industry looks at alternative fish labels focusing on this area.

Image: Best Buy Label

Ethical Consumer Best Buy Label

Our Best Buy Label helps you choose genuinely ethical products. Our team of researchers looks in detail at the environmental and ethical record of both the product and the company.

By evaluating the company first it ensures that our label would never be rewarded to a company selling a 'fairtrade' or 'organic' product if they are a controversial multinational corporation.

The Best Buys are taken from our detailed shopping guides, rating everything from bread to banks. The product and company are then rated against more than 20 animal welfare, environmental and human rights criteria in our ranking system.

Fair to Nature logo RSPB


A new food and drink label was launched in 2023 to target the crisis in wildlife that’s
currently ravaging our farmland. The Fair to Nature food and farming certification scheme aims to tackle the enormous loss of UK biodiversity that threatens our long-term food

Run by the RSPB, Fair to Nature is the only UK food and drink certification scheme with a focus on biodiversity and reversing the ongoing loss of nature. 

Food brands and supermarkets who sign up to the scheme agree to buy from certified farms and can display the Fair to Nature logo on the packaging of certified products.

To meet the certification standard, farmers must make at least 10% of their farmed land available to a range of high-quality nature habitats. They must also manage soils and inputs more sustainably to better support and work alongside nature.

Mark Varney who heads up Fair to Nature said “Over recent years in the UK, we’ve seen the disappearance of half of our native farmland wildlife and witnessed the ecosystems we all depend on for our food come under threat. Put simply, without nature there is no food.”

Hope Farm in Cambridgeshire which has been run by the RSPB since 2000 grows a diverse range of crops including rapeseed oil which is one of the first consumer products to be sold
under the Fair to Nature label.

Thanks to its wildlife-friendly management, the numbers of breeding farmland birds have increased by 177% and there are around 11 times more bumblebees.