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Organic Food: What Do the Labels Really Mean?

Organic food is a large industry that is growing every year. According to TIME [3], “Americans spent some $16.7 billion on organic food last year, up from $13.8 billion in 2005–and sales are expected to rise by 20% this year.”

If you buy organic foods, you know that the price is often substantially higher than the price for conventionally grown foods. Before you put down your hard earned cash to buy organic foods, make sure you understand what you are actually buying. Here is a guide to organic labeling.

According to The Huffington Post [4], “organic fruits and vegetables must be grown without the use of: synthetically created pesticides; synthetically created chemical fertilizers; sewage sludge; genetic engineering which appears to introduce novel proteins, allergens, viruses, and toxins into crops; irradiation.”

What Do the Terms Really Mean?

100% Organic: This label is used for products that are entirely made of organic ingredients. This is most common in one ingredient foods like fresh fruits and vegetables.

Organic: If a product is labeled “organic” it must be made of at least 95% organic ingredients.

Made with Organic Ingredients: The product must contain 70% organic ingredients to earn this designation.

Natural: This term has no specific designation. While you may assume that “natural” means it is healthier, that is not always the case.

Organic Eggs

Eggs that are designated organic must come from chickens that have only eaten organic feed and have not had antibiotics or growth hormones.

Many people choose to buy eggs that come from cage free chickens, but that doesn’t really mean much. They may not be in cages, but they may still be in very cramped quarters and they may never go outside.

Organic Meat Designations

Any meat that is marked as organic must be fed only 100% organic food and must not have received antibiotics or growth hormones. These animals cannot come from cloned animals.

Meat marked as “natural” or “all natural” may not be organic, but it is minimally processed and has no artificial ingredients.

What Other Clues to Look For

Besides knowing the terminology for food that is organic, there are also symbols you can look for. A brown circle with “USDA Organic” written in the center can only be used on products that are 95% to 100% organic. The symbol cannot be used on products that are 70% or less organic. Those that are less than 70% organic cannot use the word “organic” on their product labels. However, they can mention which individual items are organic on the ingredient list.

Keep in mind if you are buying from a small, local farmer, they may not have their produce marked as organic because they have not officially gone through the process of becoming designated organic farmers. You can instead ask them what practices they use when growing their crops. Many follow organic standards but don’t yet have the organic certification.

If you are buying organics because you believe they are the healthier choice, make sure to understand exactly what the labels mean so you can make the best purchases for your money.

(Photo: intherough [5])