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Is Going Organic the Way to Go?

by Amy Campbell, MS, RD, CDE

As a person with diabetes, you’ve most likely given some thought to what you choose to eat. Perhaps you’re counting carbohydrates or following a tailored eating plan; maybe you’re careful to make heart-healthy food choices or are trying to incorporate more fruits and vegetables into your diet to help you lose weight. Whatever nutritional path you’ve headed down, undoubtedly you’ve noticed the ever-growing availability of organic foods.

Years ago, the term “organic” may have conjured up images of people with long hair eating bowls of granola or tofu and brown rice purchased at a health-food store. Things are different today.

Organic foods can be found right in your local grocery store and even in the closest Wal-Mart. And not all organic products are necessarily what you’d expect, either. Beer, wine, vodka, cosmetics, and even clothing are now all available in organic versions.

The decision whether to buy, say, organic bananas rather than regular bananas often boils down to the price. According to an article in Consumer Reports in 2006, almost two-thirds of US consumers bought organic foods and beverages in 2005, which was up from approximately half of consumers in 2004. Organic products are part of a fast-growing industry.

What do the terms mean?
Organic foods in the United States are regulated by US Department of Agriculture (USDA). Since 2002, national standards have been implemented to help consumers make informed decisions when buying organic foods. This stemmed from the Organic Foods Production Act passed by Congress in 1990, which charged the USDA with developing national standards for organically produced agricultural products. According to the National Organic Program, created by the USDA, organic food is “produced by farmers who emphasize the use of renewable resources and the conservation of soil and water to enhance environmental quality for future generations.”

This means that organic meat, poultry, eggs, and dairy products come from animals that are not fed antibiotics or growth hormones. Furthermore, organic dairy products must come from animals that were fed organic feed for at least one year and given access to the outdoors. Organic food cannot be produced with most of the conventional pesticides, fertilizers made with synthetic ingredients or sewer sludge, herbicides, antibiotics, hormones, bioengineering (such as genetic modification), or ionizing radiation. A certifier must inspect farms where organic food is grown and produced, and companies where organic food is handled and processed, to make sure that the appropriate steps have been taken to meet USDA organic standards.

The word “natural” on a food label does not necessarily mean “organic.” The USDA regulates the use of this term in regard to meat and poultry: Foods labeled “natural” cannot contain any artificial ingredients or added colors and must be only minimally processed. However, this meaning of “natural” currently only applies to meat and poultry, and not to other foods.

To simplify things for you when you shop, here’s a quick list of terms to know:

100% organic. The product contains 100% organic ingredients.

Organic. At least 95% of ingredients are organically produced.

Made with organic ingredients. At least 70% of the ingredients are organic.

Natural or all-natural. There is currently no standard definition for this term except for meat and poultry products. The USDA defines natural as not containing any artificial ingredients or added colors.

Free-range or free-roaming. Refers to products that come from animals who been provided with access to the outdoors. However, this can describe a wide variety of circumstances, and the US government standards are weak.

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