Understanding Organic Food Labels

Nowadays, the consumer undergoes an assault at the grocery store as manufacturers hurl these marketing bombs in mass to persuade the consumer to purchase their product.

In fact, one of my initial problems with organic food was convincing myself that what I was buying was actually organic, and that it was actually beneficial for the environment.  Green Blizzard has some handy articles about which fruits/vegetables are less likely to be tainted in our Dirty Dozen article or and How to Buy Fruits and Vegetables In Season.

The Paradox

Promising labels blurt out phrases such as Made with Organic Ingredients. Natural. Low Fat. Reduced Fat. Low Calorie. Low Carb. No Saturated Fat. Non-Fat. A Good Source of Calcium. A Good Source of Fiber… all of which raise more questions that they answer.

Understanding Organic Food Labels

My frustration has been that in some cases, I was paying a higher price for no reason, and that I had been duped. As with buying fish, American products that are advertised as organic are often the safest bet. There are an increasing number of products from places like China whose claims to being organically grown, but are dubious at best.

When buying American, look for the USDA seal of approval that certifies the product is organic. In fact, here’s a list of the labeling terms to make sense of them and make your next trip to the grocery store a breeze:

100% Organic – Just as it sounds, this means the product is 100% organic and no chemicals used in production, whatsoever.

Organic – This means that the product is 95% organic or higher. The other 5% which is not organic is often needed in its production for issues like freshness. Thus organic bacon may be 95% organically grown but the remaining 5% may be additives used to ensure the bacon doesn’t spoil. In addition, the 5% that is not organic can only come from a USDA certified list of allowable products.

Sustainable Living

Made with Organic Ingredients – These products are 70-94% organic. They are good for the environment, but a substantial part of them were not organically grown. While organic products are a great buy, the industry is coming under fire as regulations and certified organic products are loosening, and many people are unhappy about the laxer criteria.

Organic food has grown into an over $20 billion industry with healthier margins and a lot of large companies like Kraft want a slice of this growing pie. However, with big business comes the ability to lobby, and the requirements for organic products have become easier to achieve.

For instance, when a product is certified as organic and it includes 5% inorganic ingredients, the additional ingredients have to be certified by the National Organic Standards Board. In 2002 there were 77 ingredients certified but now this number has almost quadrupled to 245. In addition, the standards for pesticide testing are optional, and many companies have come under scrutiny for using pesticides in organic products.

There is also gray language in the law which allows companies to figure out ways to bypass requirements, and this has resulted in many consumer watchdog groups performing tests and finding out that many products are not as “organic” as advertised. However, these foods still get to charge higher prices for organic foods even though they aren’t being organically grown.

Check out GreenBlizzard’s green iphone app of the month of May – The Dirty Dozen – a guide showcasing the fruits and vegetables with most and least pesticide residue.  You’d be surprised!

For a helpful guide to organic food, read The Organic Cook’s Bible.

At the risk of throwing out the baby with the bathwater, we have to understand that these problems are not a plague upon the organic industry. As consumers we should look into our favorite brands and see how “organic” they are. However, even the “cheating” organic companies, are often producing greener products than your normal inorganic products.

Check back here and we’ll take on the task of rating organic companies to make your job easier, but for nowjust remember that though organic food may have some problems, it’s still an excellent way to help reduce your carbon footprint and protect the environment as well as yourself.

John GarnettCheck out the Green Blizzard home page and here are the Editor’s Pick on other helpful articles relating to food that you’ll find information, Are We Eating Fish Into Extinction?,  Making Sun Tea,  Making Sun Brandy,  Why Buy Local Produce and The Carbon Impact of Meats.


About the author

John R. Garnet

John's work in the energy market fostered his interest in the environment. He recently completed his graduate work at George Mason University, But more interestingly, John has a passion for food and cooking and to provides some light-hearted tips to make people's lives greener while enjoy the good life with everyday practical tips from brewing tea, growing basil, or drinking raw milk.