Is Your Organic Food Really Organic?

Confused about organic food labels? Learn what they mean

You’ve made the decision and taken the plunge — you’ve gone organic. But, now it gets a little confusing. You want to eat healthy and provide quality food for your family, but you don’t want to get ripped off paying for food that’s not really organic.

If you’re having trouble telling what food is organic or reading the different organic food labels, here’s some help.

How Do Products Qualify for the Organic Label?

In the United States, companies that make over $5,000 per year must receive certification if they want to use the organic labels or have the word ‘organic’ on their packaging. Businesses eligible for certification are seed suppliers, farmers, food processors, retailers and restaurants.

The businesses must follow these guidelines:

Avoid using fertilizer, pesticides, antibiotics, food additives, genetically modified organisms, irradiation.

Avoid using sewer sludge.

Provide strict separation between organically and inorganically produced products.

Farmland must be chemical-free for three years prior to growing organic produce or grazing of farm animals.

In addition to these regulations, the businesses must keep detailed production and sales records and must agree to periodic on-site inspections.

The first certification began in California in 1973 and the National Organic Program became federal legislation in 2002. The organic foods movement gradually became organized and regulated and producers must meet strict guidelines. One of the ways to regulate organic foods is with labeling.

What Do the Organic Labels Mean?

There are several different labels when it comes to organic food and they can get confusing. In the United States, there are three levels of organics defined by the Federal Organic Legislation. Here are the most common labels and their explanation.

100% Organic — A raw or agricultural product that contains 100% organic products. Only products made entirely of certified organic ingredients are labeled with this seal.

Organic — Whenever you see the word ‘organic’ on the front label of a product, the product must be 95% organic.

Made with (specified) organic ingredients — Products allowed to put this on their front label must have a product that is 70% organic. The ingredients must follow the USDA requirements for organic handling. You may see this label on products saying, ‘Made with organic tomatoes’ or something similar.

Organic ingredients identified on the side or the back of the package — When a product has multiple ingredients and less than 70% of them are organic, the manufacturer can only put the word ‘organic’ on the side or back packaging label. For instance, you may find trail mix that has ‘organic almonds’ in the list of ingredients. But, it is only the almonds that were organically grown and nothing else.

USDA Organic Seal — Only products containing at least 95% organic ingredients can use this seal.

Do Some Detective Work

Now that you understand how different products qualify as organic and what each label means, it’s time to get out there and really take the plunge. Shop around and find different stores or produce stands that carry organic food.

Ask questions when you buy at produce stands. The seller should be able to give detailed information about how he or she grew the produce. Ask how they control pests. Ask how long it has been since non-allowable substances have been on the fields. And ask about their growing methods. If they really produce organic food, they’ll know the answers to these questions about organic gardening.

When buying from ‘organic’ farmers, once again, ask questions. Most organic farmers are proud of what they do and are happy to give you all the information about organic farming that you ask for. If they hem and haw around, chances are they are simply trying to sell products that pass for organic. Move on to the next farmer.

When shopping in grocery stores, check for the organic labels. Print out this article and take it along so you can remember what each label means. Begin checking some of your favorite processed foods to see how truly ‘natural’ they really are.

Before you know it, you’ll become a whiz at reading those labels. You’ll soon know which farms and produces stands offer the best merchandise for the lowest prices. In no time at all, eating organic will become second nature.