Organic Foods:

Understanding Organic Food Labels, Benefits, And Claims

Organic food has become very popular. But navigating the maze of organic food labels, benefits, and claims can be confusing. Is organic food really healthier? Is it more nutritious? What do all the labels mean? Why is it so expensive? This guide can help you make better choices about which organic foods are healthier for you and better for the environment, and how you can afford to incorporate more organic food into your diet.

What Is Organic Food?

Making a commitment to healthy eating is a great start towards a healthier life. Beyond eating more fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and good fats, however, there is the question of food safety, nutrition, and sustainability. How foods are grown or raised can impact both your health and the environment. This brings up the questions: What is the difference between organic foods and conventionally grown foods? Is organic always best? What about locally grown foods?

What Does Organic Mean?

The term organic refers to the way agricultural products are grown and processed. Specific requirements must be met and maintained in order for products to be labeled as "organic".

Organic crops must be grown in safe soil, have no modifications, and must remain separate from conventional products. Farmers are not allowed to use synthetic pesticides, bioengineered genes (GMOs), petroleum-based fertilizers, and sewage sludge-based fertilizers.

What Are Genetically Modified Organisms (GMOs)

Genetically Modified Organisms (GMOs) are plants or animals whose DNA has been altered. These products have undergone only short-term testing to determine their effects on humans and the environment.

In most countries, organic products do not contain GMOs.

Organic livestock must have access to the outdoors and be given organic feed. They may not be given antibiotics, growth hormones, or any animal-by-products.

Is Organic Food More Nutritious Than Non Organic Food?

The evidence is unclear. Some studies suggest that, on average, organically grown fruits and vegetables may contain slightly higher levels of vitamin C, trace minerals, and antioxidant phytonutrients than conventionally grown produce. However, other studies have found no nutritional differences between organic and non-organic foods.

The Benefits Of Organic Food

Organic foods provide a variety of benefits. Some studies show that organic foods have more beneficial nutrients, such as antioxidants, than their conventionally grown counterparts. In addition, people with allergies to foods, chemicals, or preservatives often find their symptoms lessen or go away when they eat only organic foods. In addition:

Why Do Pesticides Matter?

Organic Farming And Locally Grown Produce

Organic farming refers to the agricultural production systems that are used to produce food and fiber. Organic farmers don't use synthetic pesticides or fertilizers. Instead, they rely on biological diversity in the field to naturally reduce habitat for pest organisms. Organic farmers also purposefully maintain and replenish the fertility of the soil. All kinds of agricultural products are produced organically, including produce, grains, meat, dairy, eggs, fibers such as cotton, flowers, and processed food products.

Essential Characteristics Of Organic Systems Include:

Organic Vs. Non Organic Produce:
No PesticidesPesticides Used
Grown With Natural Fertilizers (Manure, Compost)Grown With Synthetic Or Chemical Fertilizers
Weeds Are Controlled Naturally (Crop Rotation, Hand Weeding, Mulching, And Tilling)Weeds Are Controlled With Chemical Herbicides
Insects Are Controlled Using Natural Methods (Birds, Good Insects, Traps)Insecticides Are Used To Manage Pests And Disease

Locally Grown Fruits And Vegetables

What is local food? Unlike organic standards, there is no specific definition. Generally local food means food that was grown close to home. This could be in your own garden, your local community, your state, your region, or your country. During large portions of the year it is usually possible to find food grown very close to home at places such as a farmer's market.

Why People Buy Locally Grown Food

Small local farmers often use organic methods but sometimes cannot afford to become certified organic. Visit a farmer's market and talk with the farmers. Find out how they produce the fruits and vegetables they sell. You can even ask for a farm tour.

Fruits And Vegetables Where The Organic Label Matters The Most:
ApplesKale
Bell PeppersLettuce
CarrotsNectarines
CeleryPeaches
CherriesPears
Grapes (Imported)Strawberries
Non Organic Fruits And Vegetables With Low Pesticide Levels:
AsparagusOnion
AvocadoPapaya
BroccoliPineapple
CabbagePeas (Sweet)
Corn (Sweet)Sweet Potatoes
EggplantTomatoes
KiwiWatermelon
Mango

Does Washing And Peeling Get Rid Of Pesticides?

Rinsing reduces but does not eliminate pesticides. Peeling sometimes helps, but valuable nutrients often go down the drain with the skin. The best approach: eat a varied diet, wash all produce, and buy organic when possible.

Source: Environmental Working Group

Organic Meat And Dairy

Organic meat, dairy products, and eggs are produced from animals that are fed organic feed and allowed access to the outdoors. They must be kept in living conditions that accommodate the natural behavior of the animals. Ruminants must have access to pasture. Organic livestock and poultry may not be given antibiotics, hormones, or medications in the absence of illness; however, they may be vaccinated against disease. Parasiticide (a substance or agent used to destroy parasites) use is strictly regulated. Livestock diseases and parasites are controlled primarily through preventative measures such as rotational grazing, balanced diet, sanitary housing, and stress reduction.

Organic Meat And Dairy:
No Antibiotics, Hormones, Or Pesticides Are Given To AnimalsConventionally Raised Meat And Dairy
Livestock Are Given All Organic FeedTypically Given Antibiotics, Hormones And Feed Grown With Pesticides
Disease Is Prevented With Natural Methods Such As Clean Housing, Rotational Grazing, And A Healthy DietLivestock Are Given Growth Hormones For Faster Growth
Livestock Must Have Access To The OutdoorsLivestock May Or May Not Have Access To The Outdoors
Antibiotics And Medications Are Used To Prevent Iivestock Disease

What's In American Meat?

It is helpful to understand what the U.S. government allows in feed or to be used in conventional production:

Source: Meat, Dairy, And Eggs Buying Guide

Understanding Organic Food Labels

What do the food labels such as organic, natural, free-range, and non GMO really mean? Understanding this terminology is essential when you're shopping for organic foods.

The most important point to remember is that natural does not equal organic. Natural is an unregulated term that can be applied by anyone, whereas organic certification means that set production standards have been met. These production standards vary from country to country in the U.S., for example, only the USDA Organic label indicates that a food is certified organic. Similar certification labels are also offered on organic products in other parts of the world, including the European Union, Canada, and Australia.

USDA Certified Organic Food Labels In The U.S.

When you're shopping for organic foods in the U.S., look for the USDA Organic seal. Only foods that are 95 to 100 percent organic can use the USDA Organic label.

Meat And Dairy Labels: Other Terms You Need To Know

The organic label is the most regulated term, but when it comes to meat, we often see many other terms used. In order to make informed choices, it is helpful to know what some of these terms mean, although their use can often vary from country to country.

What Does Certified Organic Mean In The U.S.?

Keep in mind that even if a producer is certified organic in the U.S., the use of the USDA Organic label is voluntary. At the same time, not everyone goes through the rigorous process of becoming certified, especially smaller farming operations. When shopping at a farmers market, for example, don't hesitate to ask the vendors how their food was grown.

Source: Organic.org

Tips For Keeping The Cost Of Organic Food Within Your Budget

Organic food is often more expensive than conventionally grown food. But if you set some priorities, it may be possible to purchase organic food and stay within your food budget. Purchase the organic versions of the foods you eat the most and those that are highest in pesticides if conventionally grown.

Venture beyond the grocery store. Consider the following ideas for finding organic food:

Organic Food Buying Tips

Why Is Organic Food Often More Expensive?

Organic food is more labor intensive since the farmers do not use pesticides, chemical fertilizers, or drugs. Organic certification and maintaining this status is expensive. Organic feed for animals can cost twice as much. Organic farms tend to be smaller than conventional farms, which means fixed costs and overhead must be distributed across smaller produce volumes. Most organic farms are too small to receive government subsidies.

Enjoying The Benefit Of Fish Without Harmful Side Effects

There is a lot of confusion surrounding the healthfulness of seafood. Fish is low in saturated fat and can be a good source of high-quality protein, omega-3 fatty acids, and other essential nutrients. Yet common toxins such as mercury are also found in fish. What does this mean? How much is okay? Which fish are safe?

Each year dangerous quantities of mercury are emitted into the air (an aspect of widespread industrial pollution). When it rains, this pollution goes into our lakes and oceans where it contaminates the fish and shellfish that live there. Seafood can contain harmful chemicals such as mercury, PCBs, chlordane, dioxins, and DDT. This is a problem because eating fish contaminated with mercury, a poison that interferes with the brain and nervous system, can cause serious health problems. The top predators, such as sharks, contain the highest levels of these contaminants. Nursing mothers, pregnant women, women who may become pregnant, and young children have the highest risk, so are advised to avoid all large fish (Shark, Swordfish, King Mackerel, Tilefish, etc.).

In recent years there has been a huge decline in many species of fish, caused by unsustainable fishing and farming practices. This means that if changes are not made soon, many wild populations of fish may become extinct.

Sustainable Seafood Choices

Seafood can be part of a healthy diet if you know what type of fish to choose. There are a number of smartphone apps and downloadable wallet-cards for you to keep on hand to use in the grocery store or a restaurant. These guides are updated often and contain the latest information on healthful and sustainable seafood choices. Find links in the Resources section below.

Next Step

Healthy Weight Loss

Find a farmers market near you. To find farmers markets, organic farms, and grocery co-ops in your area:

Resources And References For Organic Foods

General Information About Organic Food

Organic Foods: Are they safer? More nutritious? Information on the difference between organic and conventional foods. (MayoClinic.com)

Organic FAQs Get Educated a whole section on organics: What is Organic? Myths About Organic, 10 Reasons to Go Organic, and FAQs. (Organic.org)

The Truth about Organic Foods A guide on how to make the healthiest choices for your family. (Redbook)

Eating Food That's Better for You, Organic or Not Information on how organic doesn't mean it's better for you. (New York Times)

USDA Certified Organic Labels

Certified Organic Label Guide Information on the significance and how to make sense of the USDA Organic label. (Organic.org)

USDA Organic: Behind the Label Information on how organic labeling works in the U.S. (Gaiam)

Organic Labeling and Marketing Information (PDF) Information on organic labeling in the U.S. (USDA, National Organic Program)

Is Organic Food More Nutritious?

Study: Organic food not more nutritional a new study finds organic foods are not necessarily more nutritious. (CNN)

Organic or Not? Is organic produce healthier than conventional? Find out where to spend and where to save for your health. (EatingWell)

Benefits Of Organic Food

Does it pay to buy organic? For pregnant women and children, the benefits are worth the higher price. (Business Week)

Benefits of Organic Information on various topics related to the benefits of organics. (Organic Trade Association)

Local Food

Food Miles (PDF) -  How the distance your food travels can have serious consequences for your health. (NRDC)

What is local? How to buy and eat local food and why it matters. (Sustainable Table)

Meat Labels

A Brief Guide to Meat and Dairy Labels and Their Relevance to Animal Welfare (The Humane Society of the United States)

Organic Food Buying Tips

Shopper's Guide to Pesticides (PDF) List of the produce with the highest and lowest pesticide levels. (Environmental Working Group)

Seasonal Food Guide Find out what produce is in season in your area of the U.S. and Canada. (Eat Well Guide)

Where To Find Farmer's Markets

Eat Well Guide Find local, organic, sustainable food from farms, markets, restaurants and more in the U.S. and Canada. (Eat Well Guide)

Local Harvest Find farmers markets, family farms, and other sources of sustainably grown food in your area of the U.S. (Local Harvest)

Local Food Directory (UK) Find local farmer's markets and farm shops in the UK. (LocalFoods.org.uk)

Australian Farmers Markets Directory Find local farmers markets in Australia. (AFMA)

Farmers Markets Canada Find farmers markets in your region of Canada. (Farmers Markets Canada)

Sustainable Seafood Choices

NRDC Walletcard (PDF) This downloadable walletcard from The Natural Resource Defense Counsel lists the mercury levels in fish and offers recommendations for how often to eat those types of fish. (NRDC)

The Monterey Bay Aquarium Seafood Watch Pocket Guide These regional guides offer Best Choices for abundant, well managed seafood choices that are fished or farmed in environmentally friendly ways. Seafood to Avoid lists overfished and/or fished or farmed in ways that harm other marine life or the environment. (Monterey Bay Aquarium)

Monterey Bay Aquarium Seafood Watch App for Android and iPhone Provides free, up to date recommendations on your phone with detailed seafood information. (Monterey Bay Aquarium)


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