If you're reading this, you likely already possess the skill every seasoned Vegan acquires sooner or later: Being able to swiftly scan the store shelves for that sweet, green V. While the vegan badge comes in all shapes and sizes across the world, you are probably familiar with what Vegan and vegetarianism are all about. However, not every food label is as clearly defined. Let's take a look at the most prominent food labels, their definition, and their religious, cultural, or medicinal origins!

1. Vegetarian

The vegetarian label has a relatively clear definition in the general community. When foods are labelled vegetarian, it means that are the products contains no animal origin, and in the manufacture, preparation, or treatment of which no ingredients (including additives, carriers, flavourings, enzymes and substances that are not additives but used in the same way and with the same purpose as processing aids) or processing aids of animal origin (processed or unprocessed) have been added or used intentionally, with the exception of milk, colostrum, eggs, beeswax, honey and propolis, their constituents and products derived from them.

2. Vegan 

Similar to Vegetarian label, when a product labelled Vegan, it means the product doesn't contain any animal ingredients including animal by-products such as milk, colostrum, eggs, honey, beeswax and gelatin. Various certification programs may establish more trust with your customers. These certifications are usually a bit more strict than the above definition of Vegan. They may require that no animal testing has been done on any ingredients as well as some additional levels of scrutiny. Several establish certification companies that have gained trust from the people globally are the Switzerland-based V-Label GmbH and the Certified Vegan Logo. 

3. Organic 

Organic is perhaps the most prominent food label used across the world. After noticing the green badge that reads organic on the packaging, shoppers will likely turn their eyes towards a price tag, as organic is usually pricer than conventionally produced foods. 

Unfortunately, the parameters used to define organic vary wildly by country. In some (typically more developed, highly regulatory countries) the organic certification is overseen by the government body, which means the use of the term organic to market a certain product is legally protected. The requirements food producers and distributors need to meet during the production, storage, processing, shipping, and packaging of goods - in order to achieve organic certification - typically involve the following:

  1. Avoiding synthetic chemicals, such as fertilizers, pesticide additives, or antibiotics. However, some governments permit the use of certain pesticides for organic food production.
  2. The farmland used to grow crops has to be free from chemical inputs for a few years.
  3. Avoiding the use of GMO seeds.
  4. Livestock needs to meet specific criteria regarding their feed, their available space, and the amount of time they get to spend outdoors.
  5. Strictly separating between organic and non-organic products.
  6. Allowing food inspectors to come by unannounced to check if the criteria above are being met.

Although not always enforced, Indonesia also has clearly laid out rules, which organic producers must follow to market their products using the "Organik Indonesia" badge. European countries, the U.S., and Canada are known for their notoriously strict requirements regarding organic food production. Fun fact: Just like your favorite cereals, textiles, and clothing lines may also boast with their organic and vegan certification.

4. Halal 

Halal shapes the everyday life of many Muslims. The term originates from Arabic and means as much as "allowed". What is halal or haram, i.e. allowed or forbidden, is clearly described in the Koran. For food, for example, it means that Muslims are not allowed to eat pork. The meat of other animals is only halal if it has been slaughtered according to the Islamic rite. This means a Muslim has to slaughter a healthy animal, by slitting its throat and letting the blood drain out of the animal. Furthermore, Muslims are not allowed to eat food containing blood or alcohol. Products in which pork is processed are also not allowed. Alcohol is forbidden in drinks. 

What does Haram mean? 

In contrast, to "halal", prohibited or unacceptable foods are called "haram".  The following foods are considered Haram: 

  1. Pork or products made with its ingredients.
  2. Gelatine from pork and food products made with them, such as yoghurts, tarts, and gummy bears, etc.
  3. Alcohol and food containing alcohol, for example, ice cream and chocolates in traces or possibly hidden as carriers for flavours or colourings.
  4. Foods containing blood, such as blood sausage. 

Halal certification 

While the government of many western countries is not legally protecting the term haram, there are quite strict requirements one needs to follow, if he/she wants to market products as halal in Indonesia. Employees need to follow specific training, and there is typically an internal audit, that's being conducted at least twice a year. 

5. Gluten-Free 

Food not containing gluten may be labelled with the symbol of the crossed-out ear of grain. This labelling is not required for naturally gluten-free products, such as rice or maize. A wide range of gluten-free products for people with celiacs disease is available in stores, e.g. flour, bread, pasta, biscuits, cereals, and much more. These unique products can be recognized by the words "gluten-free" on the packaging. They are usually made from a mixture of the above mentioned gluten-free cereals. These designations guarantee that a specific limit value of gluten is not exceeded and that the appropriately labelled product is therefore harmless for people with the coeliac condition. 

6. Non-GMO 

GMO stands for "genetically modified organism". Cited from Non-GMO Project, Non-GMO means a product was produced without genetic engineering, and its ingredients are not derived from GMOs. Non-GMO Project Verified additionally means that a product is compliant with the Non-GMO Project Standard, which includes stringent provisions for testing, traceability, and segregation. 

7. May contain traces of… 

Some foods do not contain gluten or foods containing gluten in the list of ingredients, but which are nevertheless of concern to coeliacs because they could be contaminated with gluten during the production process. For example, if a chocolate factory also processes biscuit chocolate. Consumers can recognize this by the label "May contain traces of gluten". However, this is a voluntary indication by food businesses if gluten contamination cannot be excluded. To be sure whether trace labelling is used, as the producer only wants to be sure, or whether contamination is actually possible and therefore, a product is not recommended, consumers should ask the producers directly. 

8. No MSG 

Many restaurants in Asia and many vegan warungs in Indonesia, will have No MSG mentioned on their banner. This simply means that the restaurants do not add any Monosodium Glutamate into their dishes. However, this is not really enforced by governments, and as such, this labelling should be taken with a grain of salt. 

7. Onion and Garlic-Free 

In many cases, the No MSG label will be followed by a "No Onion, No Garlic" statement. Just like the Halal label, there are religious reasons, why some restaurants choose to eliminate onion and garlic from their dishes. 

Jain vegetarianism: 

Some Indian "pure veg" (i.e. vegetarian) restaurants abide by the rules of Jain vegetarianism. Members of the Jain religion make an effort not to injure plants and soil life. They try to avoid violence as much as possible. This is not just limited to humans and animals, but also extends to plants, fungi, and the environment as a whole. As such, Jains avoid eating root vegetables, such as potatoes, garlic, onions, ginger, and beetroot, as they need to be ripped out of the ground to be harvested. 


Some Buddhists, avoid eating anything from the Allium plant family (e.g. garlic, onions, spring onions…), as they are believed to cause unnecessary excitement, and arousing the one's who consume it and stirring up their emotions. This may hinder a Buddhist's clear thoughts and irritate his meditative state. 

Photo by Franki Chamaki on Unsplash