The Truth Behind Organic, and Other Food Labels

With all the big, fancy words on the food labels you find in the store, how do you know what they really mean? What’s the difference between organic and USDA organic? Are “natural” and “organic” the same thing? How do I determine what is best for my family? Which labels are worth the added price tag?

If these are questions you’ve found yourself thinking about, read on! I’ve put together some information about what goes into the labels, and what exactly each key word means. There are actually some pretty strict standards for what words can be used on a product label – but believe it or not, companies are very skilled at flirting with the limits and being downright dishonest and misleading. On one hand, you have companies following the rules and accurately labeling their products; on the other, there are those intentionally trying to mislead and deceit. And you may be surprised to read about one common word that actually doesn’t have any standards or guidelines that it must live up to!

Organic – 95% or more certified organic, which translates to: no pesticides, chemical fertilizers, or dyes. They are also non-GMO, and grown in a way that integrates “cultural, biological, and mechanical practices that foster cycling of resources, promote ecological balance, and conserve biodiversity”. The non-organic ingredients have to amount to < 5% and are allowed if listed on the National List.

USDA Organic – same as above, but certified by the USDA (US Department of Agriculture). Look for the classic USDA ORGANIC seal, in green and white. Personally, I find comfort in seeing this listed on organic products I buy as the USDA is a reputable source! Also, very commonly found in most supermarkets and grocery stores.

100% organic – all ingredients are certified organic, and you will find the name of the certifying agent on the label somewhere. These products may have the USDA organic seal as well.

Made with organic – 70% of the ingredients are certified organic, and the remaining 30% cannot be foods processed with additives on a special exclusion list. ALL ingredients, organic and non-organic, must be GMO-free.

Non-GMO – GMO stands for Genetically Modified Organism. It can be a “plant, animal, microorganism or other organism whose genetic makeup has been modified using recombinant DNA methods (also called gene splicing), gene modification or transgenic technology”. It therefore follows that non-GMO products do NOT contain these types of ingredients. GMOs have been highly controversial lately, with some countries placing restrictions or bans on foods produced or sold with them (European countries such as Austria, France, and Germany).

Natural – widely and commonly used key word that can often be misleading, because it has many different definitions and is not actually managed by any US agency. Used more as a selling point, and as of right now there is no true, widely-accepted definition for “natural” as used on labels.

Grading – the USDA has come up with a unique grading system that is used on their canned and frozen vegetables. The grades are rated as you would expect, with “A” being the highest and “C” being the lowest. The grading system lets consumers (like you and me!) know that the product has been packaged under USDA inspection, and what you can expect in the quality of the vegetables contained in the package, as a whole.


So, what are the benefits of buying organic?
[In theory]
• More sustainable farming methods that are better for the environment
• Less exposure to pesticides and other chemicals
• Better taste

Please keep in mind that this is not always the case. Do your own research and determine for yourself how valid these claims are, and how important they are to you and your family when choosing which produce to buy.


What are the downsides?
• Cost – it’s no secret that organic food costs more than their non-organic counterparts. Not always, but most often.
• Visuals – there have definitely been times where I will be walking around the produce section, thinking “gosh these grapes don’t look that great, is that all they have?” and then I look up to find I’m in the organic section. I turn around the corner and find much better looking produce. You decide if it matters, and how much it’s worth to you.


Where do I start?

Given this background (or maybe you already knew this information), you’ve determined that you want to go the route of buying organic but you’re not sure where to start. Or maybe you’ve been buying organic, but it’s really been cutting into your pocketbook (just kidding, nobody carries pocketbooks anymore – it’s cutting into your amazon prime budget)!

You may have heard of the “Dirty Dozen”, which is a list of 12 food items with the highest amount of pesticide residue and this is a great place to start when purchasing organic. These are the foods that are known to keep chemicals and pesticides in their skin/rind or other parts of the food that are not easily washed off. If your family consumes any of these products and high quantity, maybe this is a great place for you to start your transition to purchasing organic without breaking the bank.

1. Strawberries
2. Spinach
3. Nectarines
4. Apples
5. Peaches
6. Pears
7. Cherries
8. Grapes
9. Celery
10. Tomatoes
11. Sweet bell peppers
12. Potatoes
13. Cucumbers
14. Cherry tomatoes
15. Lettuce

The Environmental Working Group (EWG) comes out with a new list every year so that you can keep up to date with the latest information about what may be the best foods to buy organic.

The EWG also has a list of the “Clean Fifteen”, or the top 15 foods that have the cleanest record in terms of amount of residue detected.


Organic Meat
Again, for certified organic meat, there are strict guidelines to follow in order for companies to use the label “USDA Organic”. Whole Foods wrote an article that gives a great overview of what goes into organic meats – and what doesn’t. What they deem the key requirements include:
• “Must be raised organically on certified organic land”
• “Must be fed certified organic feed”
• “No antibiotics or added growth hormones are allowed*”
• “Must have outdoor access”
Read more from the Whole Foods Organic Meat article.


Where to Buy
Nowadays, you can find organic produce, dairy, meat, and packaged food like soup and pasta in almost any grocery store or market. The stores that first come to mind are the “healthy” stores like Whole Foods, Sprouts, and Natural Grocers. But you can also find organic food at farmer’s markets, through pick-your-own gardens, and even your neighborhood King Soopers, Safeway, or other ‘enter the local chain grocery store in your area’. Looking for the best price? Shop around. Looking to support local or smaller farms? Search online for farms around town. And of course, don’t forget to plant your own garden and enjoy your own, organic harvest all the growing season long. Yum!!


Surprised by what you read, or have something more to add? Let me know in the comments below!

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