Food labels boasting "organic" ingredients don't guarantee protection from unwholesome ingredients, preservatives, or manufacturing processes.
With food blogs and news outlets continually reporting conflicting information about the safety of GMOs, organic and raw foods, and even infected lettuce, it's all to easy to become confused as to what's healthful and what's harmful. While some food producers find it within their best interest to provide healthier options, many companies unwilling to change their product methods have resorted to changing their marketing. As a result, misleading labels regarding "organic" foods are meant to confuse consumers.
To be clear, truly organic foods in the U.S. have been certified as such by the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Their requirements are as follows:
- Produced without excluded methods, (e.g., genetic engineering, ionizing radiation, or sewage sludge).
- Produced using allowed substances.
- Overseen by a USDA National Organic Program-authorized certifying agent, following all USDA organic regulations.
Thus, any food can technically be "organic," from produce and milk to deli meats and seasoning. However, the limitations of the definition lead some companies to advertise their products as "organic" while still using unwholesome ingredients, preservatives, or manufacturing processes.
Here are five tips to decode organic labeling jargon:
1. "All natural" doesn't mean it's organic
In truth, many products are technically "natural," due to government regulations that forbid food producers from adding hormones or steroids to many animals. In terms of poultry and their eggs, for instance, "natural" only means that the birds are are not given hormones or steroids. In contrast, "organic" poultry denotes that birds are raised with more space than in traditional poultry farms, they only consume on organic (vegetarian) food, and no animal byproducts are allowed.
Thus, "organic" eggs are from uncaged birds who haven't been fed any chemicals. It's important to note that even an "organic" certification doesn't guarantee that the animals were raised in cruelty-free environments. Even "organic" birds are raised on factory farms, and they're still subject to beak cutting and forced molting through starvation.
2. There are different degrees of "organic"
If a label says it's "made with organic ingredients," then the product is composed of 70% organic ingredients. The remaining, non-organic ingredients may still be closely monitored (for example, GMOs aren't allowed), but they don't qualify for certification. Likewise, an "organic" label still gives leeway, as only 95% of the ingredients must be organic to qualify. In reality, only a label that says "100% Organic" can guarantee that a food product is comprised of completely organic ingredients.
3. Are there still nitrites?
Sodium nitrite is a preservative often used in meats. You can sometimes recognize the use of nitrites in deli meat that has a distinctly pink coloration. However, some studies suggest that too many nitrites can damage cells or cause cancer. As The New York Times reports, "Some products that claim to be 'natural' or 'organic' may say they are processed without nitrites or nitrates, and the label may say the item has 'no artificial preservatives' or is 'uncured.' But nutritionists warn that food manufacturers may still add vegetable powders or juices such as celery juice or beetroot juice that contain naturally occurring nitrates, which are converted to nitrites either in the food itself or when they interact with bacteria in our bodies."
4. Look for other certifications
The healthiest animal products come from the healthiest animals. As such, look for certifications from animal wellness groups. For example, Animal Welfare Approved is a credible label considered to be "the gold standard." The United Egg Producers' label certifies egg-laying hens have been treated well, and the Fair-Trade label indicates that workers' rights were seen to during the production process.
5. Larger companies are more likely to be organic
Unfortunately, some companies will not only label their products misleadingly, but forge the Organic certification. Larger companies cannot commit such fraud without quickly being noticed, but smaller companies, like those that earn less than $5,000 a year, are often too insignificant to be noticed. As The Washington Post describes, "The official USDA certificates guaranteeing that a product is organic are relatively easy to forge. And because the organic rules are designed for larger-scale commercial operations, mom-and-pop farmstands may be exempt from inspections if they yield no more than $5,000 a year in sales. So, whether food really meets organic standards is more a matter of trusting purveyors than trusting the organic label."
Mark Kastel is co-founder of the organic watchdog group The Cornucopia Institute. He notes, "There's a higher authority on these issues than the USDA. And that's the consumer." Demand is everything; the more consumers choose "organic" and hold companies accountable for inaccurate labeling, the tighter regulations can become.
There's a vast cost discrepancy between organic food and "regular" food, but is it that much better for you?
With sale of organic food on the rise, the ongoing debate has become more polarized than ever - is organic food really that much better for your body, and the environment? Do the benefits justify the price tag? Let's start by determining what makes food 'organic' and why it costs more.
Organic farms are generally smaller and not designed or equipped to produce en masse, the way their conventional competitors can. This means while they cannot offer the price drops resultant of mass production, they do provide higher quality care for crops and livestock. Many organic farmers also practice crop rotation - after harvesting a successful cash crop farmers will plant a different crop to help replenish all of the nutrients in the soil. This because otherwise the soil will be more quickly deprived of its nutrient content. Large conventional farms have the land resources to grow cash crops year long. Without the use of chemical additives and growth hormones, crops and livestock take longer to mature Without the use of pesticides,more crop damage occurs resulting in less output. Also Obtaining the official 'organic' certification requires farmers and their farms undergo arduous and expensive procedures. There are many farms that grow food organically however they do not bear the official government 'organic' stamp.
A 2012 study conducted by Stanford University analyzed a wealth of data, seeking to determine if food bearing the 'organic' label provided more or less nutritional value. While they discovered that organic foods didn't necessarily provide more health value, crops and livestock farmed organically were shown to retain less pesticide traces and less antibiotic resistant bacteria.
It would seem the true reason for the difference in price is good old capitalism. Supply and demand. Because there's less organically farmed food available on the market and it takes longer to produce and is in produced in lower quantities, and because demand continues to rise, so does the price.
So is it really worth it? Probably not. The extra money you pay for organic food isn't because it's that much better for you. You're really paying for the 'organic' stamp from the USDA, and the increased cost of organic farming.
For those interested in the environmental, ethical, and even taste benefits of organic food, your best bet is to shop your local farmers markets. Many local farmers don't necessarily go through the hoops required to obtain the USDA 'organic' stamp, but they practice organic farming and do not use additives, hormones, or heavy pesticides.