Walk into the produce section of your local supermarket, and you’ll see organic fruits and vegetables sitting alongside the “regular” fruits and veggies. And it’s not only in the produce section. You’ll find organic foods in pretty much any section of the store, whether it’s cereal, bread, grains, or milk.
The next thing you’ll notice is the price tag: organic foods don’t come cheap. Then, you might start scratching your head, wondering if you should be eating organic foods, and if so, how your grocery budget will be impacted. You might also start feeling a little bit guilty if you don’t buy them.
Not so long ago, organic foods were found primarily in health food stores. Today, more and more people are choosing organic foods, if not at least thinking about doing so. The United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) reports that sales of organic foods have increased 20% to 25% annually since the early 1990’s. But there’s still some confusion and mystery behind the term “organic.” Just what does it mean? And are these foods really better for you?
The Lowdown on Organic
It helps to understand what “organic” means with regard to food (as opposed to, say cosmetics or personal care products).
The USDA regulates organic foods. National standards were implemented in 2002 to help consumers make sense of the term and to choose wisely. According to The National Organic Program, sponsored 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.
Organic foods are produced without conventional pesticides, fertilizers made with synthetic ingredients or sewer sludge, bioengineering (such as genetic modification), or ionizing radiation. Organic meat, poultry, and eggs come from animals that are not fed antibiotics or growth hormones. Furthermore, organic animal products must come from animals that were fed organic feed and given access to the outdoors.
Organic farms and processing plants must be formally certified and approved by USDA government officials in order for food products to be called “organic.”
Terms to Know
Be careful when shopping. You’ll see a number of terms that include the words “organic” and, sometimes, “natural.” Here are some common terms that you’ll come across and what they mean:
100% organic. All of the product’s ingredients must be 100% organic, except for added water and salt.
Organic. At least 95% of the ingredients in the product are organically produced, except for water and salt.
Made with organic ingredients. Between 70% and 94% of the ingredients are organic.
Natural or all-natural. Does not mean organic. There is no standard definition for this term, with the exception of meat and poultry products. The USDA defines “natural” for meat and poultry as not containing any artificial flavors, colors, chemical preservatives, or synthetic ingredients.
Free-range or free-roaming. Implies that animals who have spent a good portion of their lives outdoors. However, this is a nebulous term and the US government standards are weak.
Cage-free. Means that chickens are not kept in battery cages.
Hormone-free. Not allowed on meat products. Federal regulations prohibit the use of hormones in poultry, hogs, and veal calves, as well as in animals that are not subject to USDA inspection. Manufacturers of beef can label their products as “no hormones administered” if they can document that their animals were raised without hormones.
You might come across a seal on organic foods that states “USDA Organic.” This seal ensures that the food is indeed processed organically according to established standards. But the use of the seal is voluntary and not all food manufacturers use it.
More on organic foods next week!