Healthful or Harmful: How to Read Organic Labels

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:

  1. Produced without excluded methods, (e.g., genetic engineering, ionizing radiation, or sewage sludge).
  2. Produced using allowed substances.
  3. 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.

Meg Hanson is a Brooklyn-based writer, teacher, and jaywalker. Find Meg at her website and on Twitter @megsoyung.