Monday, January 12, 2009

What does "Organic" mean?

I'm not going to lie, I was initially clueless about 'organic'; what it meant, what the standards are, what to look for (deciphering the organic "code" from manufacturers), the pros & cons of organic products, etc. Luckily, there are some GREAT resources online for all of us organic newbies. Here's a little breakdown...

The term
organic is often used these days to describe food or materials grown without the use of pesticides, antibiotics or other harmful chemicals. The USDA created The National Organic Program in conjunction with The Organic Foods Production Act, whose responsibilities include ensuring "that the organic agricultural products they purchase are produced, processed, and certified to consistent national organic standards. The labeling requirements of the NOP apply to raw, fresh products and processed products that contain organic agricultural ingredients."
What does this mean to me as a consumer? Crops are grown without the use of synthetic pesticides, fertilizers or other chemicals to preserve shelf life. Ideally, animals raised as organic are supposed to be free from antibiotics, synthetic growth hormones, consume only organic feed and are free to roam (vs. living in cramped cages or pens their whole lives).

Unfortunately there is still much debate on what percen
tage of a product can be certified organic -AND- many companies are still using the term "organic" loosely on products that really should not be labeled as such. Not all organic products are created equal.

There are four categories of "organic" according to the FDA guidelines;
  • 100 % organic - may bear the USDA label shown above
  • Atleast 95% organic - may say "organic" on the label & may use USDA seal
  • Atleast 70% organic - may say "made with organic" followed by 3 specific ingredients & may use USDA seal
  • Less than 70% organic - may only list those organic ingredients on side or back ingredient panel, but not on the front and may NOT use USDA seal
Check out NOP Guidelines for labeling guidelines for organic products and Quality Assurance International.
What about "natural" products?

Many companies have jumped on the health bandwagon, and in attempts to get a cut of the burgeoning health and wellness industry, have used natural as empty marketing terminology to lure unsuspecting consumers. The term "natural" is not interchangeable with organic. According to the FDA, "the term 'natural' has not been defined in FDA's law...or in FDA's regulations," (FDA website). So watch out for products claiming to be natural (no matter how 'earthy' the packaging may look) --- read labels and if you have any doubts, contact the company's customer service for clarification.