Your Health

Label Education: Coffee

What do all those labels on bags of coffee really mean?

Have you ever been standing in the aisle trying to pick out a bag of coffee and been completely overwhelmed by all the different bags touting different certifications that make them “better” than the other? Us too. So, we pulled together information on the most popular coffee certifications and figured out what they meant. Some have implications for your health, like whether the coffee was grown using pesticides or not, and others focus more on the sustainability of the practices and lives of the farmers. All are worth taking into consideration, and knowing all the facts can help you prioritize which certifications are more important to you.

Next time you’re standing there, no need to be confused. We’ve broken it down for what each label means in terms of your health and any other ethical factors the certifications take into consideration.


a) Rainforest Alliance Certified

Environmental Health: Has a pesticide management policy, bans certain pesticides, requires Integrated Pest Management

Ethical considerations: Sustainable agriculture standard for social, economic, and environmental sustainability

b) USDA Organic

Environmental Health: Must be 95% organically grown per USDA standards. Does not allow GMOs. See our article on what organic means for a deep dive.

c) Bird Friendly

Environmental Health: Certified organic

Ethical considerations: Grown under biodiverse shade that provides habitat for migratory songbirds and other wildlife, sequesters carbon and fights climate change

d) Fairtrade America

Environmental Health: Has a pesticide ranking system. Red list not allowed, and amber list, while allowed, are highly discouraged and are being investigated. No GM products allowed. Products must also meet Fairtrade standards.

Ethical considerations: Coffee farmers earn at least the Fairtrade minimum price for their coffee, which is set to cover production costs and provide security when market prices drop below a sustainable level. They also receive the Fairtrade premium, an additional sum they can spend on business or community improvements. They must allocate at least 25% of the premium to boost productivity and quality.

e) Fair Trade USA

Environmental Health: Agricultural Production Standard includes requirements for IPM and has a list of pesticides that fall under different categories (red and yellow). Those on the red list are prohibited, while those on the yellow list require that additional mitigation and protections be put in place.

Ethical considerations: Believes earnings should fulfill basic household needs, farmers should be empowered to make choices for the good of themselves and their community regardless of gender, status, or position. Decisions should be made by committee on how to invest the Fair Trade premium, and promote environmental stewardship.

f) UTZ

Environmental Health: Has a list of banned pesticides and only allows other pesticides if Integrated Pest Management has been ineffective and the pesticide is certified for use on that crop.

Ethical considerations: Code of Conduct, which sets guidelines for better farming methods and working conditions