Increasing our awareness of what is in the food we eat can lead to better health and maybe even greater successes at the gym. Even with advances in food labeling, weighing producers’ marketing claims against nutritional facts can still be a tricky business, however.
One type of label intended to separate fact from marketing hyperbole in the United States is the federal “organic” food certification program.
As it pertains to agricultural production, Webster’s dictionary defines the term “organic” as “of, relating to, yielding, or involving the use of food produced with the use of feed or fertilizer of plant or animal origin without the without employment of chemically formulated fertilizers, growth stimulants, antibiotics, or pesticides.”
According to the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA), produce can be labeled organic if it has been certified to have grown on soil with no prohibited substances applied for three years prior to harvest. Prohibited substances in this case include most synthetic fertilizers and pesticides. And when a grower must use a synthetic substance for a specific purpose, that substance must first be approved according to criteria that examine its effects on the health of potential human consumers as well as the health of the environment.
In the United States, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) sets the standards on levels of residue such as pesticides that it says are not harmful to humans. So, if a food sports a USDA Organic label, it simply means that it has been produced and processed according to the USDA standards. The levels of residues on most products–whether produced using organic methods or from nonorganic ones–are not allowed to exceed EPA-mandated safety limits.
How Natural Is “Organic”?
In order to bear the “USDA Organic’ label, a product must be USDA certified as having been grown organically. So far, so good. But why aren’t many, if not most, items at the local farmers’ market labeled “USDA Certified Organic”? One obvious explanation is that perhaps the food wasn’t grown in strict accordance with organic farming practices. But another explanation might simply have to do with how much organic produce or meat the “organic” farmer or rancher in question sells annually. Producers who sell less than $5,000 a year in organic foods are exempt from the federal certification program. The USDA does permit such small producers who choose not to be certified to tell customers that they are using organic methods of production word-of-mouth style, however. So next time you’re at the farmers market, when in doubt, just ask.
What’s in a Name?
Products that are completely organic–such as fruits, vegetables, nuts, eggs and other single-ingredient foods–can be labeled 100 percent organic and can carry the USDA seal.
For processed, multi-ingredient foods, however, USDA organic standards are more complex. To bear the organic label, processed foods cannot contain artificial preservatives, colors, or flavors and their ingredients must be organic–with some exceptions. For example, processed organic foods may contain some approved non-agricultural ingredients, such as the enzymes used to produce yogurt, the pectin used in fruit preserves, or the baking soda commonly used in baked goods.
As for organic meat, federal regulations require that animals are raised in living conditions that accommodate their natural behaviors (such as the ability to graze on pasture for cows or forage the yard in the case of chickens), receive 100 percent organic feed and forage, and not are administered antibiotics or hormones.
The USDA does not regulate the label “natural” except when it is used in conjunction with meat and poultry products. To be labeled as “natural”, meats and poultry must have no artificial ingredients, no added color and minimal processing. Minimal processing means that the product was processed in a way that does not fundamentally alter it. Fortunately for consumers, the label must include a statement explaining the meaning of the term “natural”, such as “no artificial ingredients” or “minimally processed.”
Foods that have more than one ingredient, such as many cereals, can use the USDA organic seal plus the following wording, depending on the number of organic ingredients:
- “100 percent organic”. In order to use this phrase, products must be either completely organic or made of all organic ingredients.
- “Certified Organic”. Ninety-five percent of the ingredients are certified organic, excluding salt and water.
- “Organic”. Products must be at least 95 percent organic in order to use this term.
- “Made with organic ingredients” Products that contain at least 70 percent organic ingredients are allowed to say so on the label, but they are not allowed to use the seal.
- No Label Claims=Less than 70 percent of the ingredients are certified organic.
Is Organic “Better”?
Organic producers use natural substances and physical, mechanical, or biologically based ways of farming to the greatest extent they can. But is the food they produce really more nutritious and does it harbor fewer residual chemicals than conventionally raised counterparts?
The current scientific literature lacks strong evidence that organic foods, including organic meats, are significantly more nutritious than foods produced using conventional methods. However, some studies have suggested that consuming organically grown or raised foods may reduce exposure to residues from pesticides and herbicides and those bacteria that have become resistant to the antibiotics used in conventional farming.
Ironically, some food that is produced organically might not be labeled as such since producers must pay to use the USDA Certified Organic seal. A common criticism of the organic label program is that the added cost of the certification and the additional costs involved in organic production are often passed on to the consumer.
But for many people, choosing organic foods has as much to do with ethics as it does with health concerns or the grocery bill. Some consumers select organic foods over their conventially grown counterparts because they prefer the taste alone, and many organic devotees are quick to point out that organic farming methods are aimed at helping the environment by conserving water and soil quality.
‘Better Shop Around
Many consumers in the United States are so numbed to advertising copy that we are scarcely conscious of it. So when comparison shopping, always remember to read the ingredient list: Even if a product label states that it is organic or contains organic ingredients, that fact alone doesn’t necessarily make it a better choice in terms of the amounts of sugars, fats or sodium it contains.
Taken together with nutrition facts, ingredients lists, and dietary claims printed on food packages, the “organic” label might just seem one more piece of information to sift through when going to the grocery or market. But making the effort to understand what “organic” really means can help a shopper make better-informed decisions, and there is much to be said for that.