What is “organic” food? a look behind the label

  • Organic is a designation managed by the USDA to mark foods produced with fewer chemicals.
  • Organic items must follow strict production guidelines.
  • However, organic foods are not necessarily healthier than conventionally grown foods.

Browsing through the grocery store these days, we are bombarded with labels. Foods boast of being free-range, farm-fed, or organic, all hinting at greater health and sustainability. These labels can help you make a quick choice between brands, but if you’re like most people, you’re probably wondering what organic is. really means.

Mixed information, such as whether organic foods are healthier for people, what pesticides can be used, and whether it’s worth the extra cost, has caused much confusion among consumers. Here’s what organic really means — and doesn’t — and how you can use the label to make more informed purchases.

What does “organic” really mean?

“Organic refers to foods grown using specific practices and methods aimed at improving or maintaining ecological balances between soil, plants, and animals,” says Francene Steinberg, PhD, RDN, chair of the science department. Agricultural and Environmental Science from Davis College, University of California. Food.

Organic foods are grown with fewer synthetic pesticides and fertilizers than conventional foods because these products can make the soil less healthy in the long run by depleting it.

Organic farms use best practices for the environment, such as increasing crop and animal diversity, or rotating the use of their fields. No genetically modified organisms (GMOs) – products whose DNA has been modified by humans – may be used in organic items. This is because the organic label indicates that the food grown or produced is of natural origin. Some people also believe that GMOs are toxic, although this has not been scientifically proven.

To be labeled organic, a product must meet regulatory requirements.

What does organic mean do not mean?

According to Steinberg, there is a common misconception that organic products mean that items are produced without pesticides or fertilizers. Organic farms can still use non-synthetic pesticides. Some synthetic pesticides that have no natural alternative, such as copper sulphate, may be permitted in organic farming.

“Organic does not mean ‘pesticide free,'” says Christine Byrne, RD, registered nutritionist at Christine Byrne Nutrition. For this reason, you must wash all products, including organic products, before cooking or consuming them.

“Organic doesn’t mean a product is more nutritious,” she says. Some research indicates that organic produce may have higher levels of nutrients like omega-3 fatty acids, but the difference was not enough to impact health.

Finally, organic is not synonymous with “natural,” says Ellis Hunnes. Organic has strict labeling requirements, while “natural” is defined less strictly as a minimally processed product with no artificial colors, preservatives or flavors.

What is required for a product to obtain USDA certification?

Wooden crate filled with lettuce on an organic farm.

There are various qualifications that products, animal products, food products and farms must meet to be certified organic.

KDP/Getty Images

To be labeled organic in the United States, products must meet the qualifications required by the USDA Agricultural Marketing Service. These guidelines are intended to promote environmental health, says Dana Ellis Hunnes, PhD, RD, senior dietitian at Ronald Reagan UCLA Medical Center.

Organic farms recycle resources, rotate the use of their land to avoid resource depletion, and conserve biodiversity by using genetically diverse crops and livestock.

Outside of the United States, many other countries have similar labeling programs. Qualifications for organic labeling in the United States are tailored to different products:


Organic produce must be grown in soil that has not been exposed to banned substances, including most synthetic fertilizers and pesticides, for at least three years before acquiring an organic label.

Meat and animal products

The animal must have been raised in conditions allowing its normal behaviors, such as grazing in a pasture. He must have received organic food and cannot have been donated


or hormones.

processed foods

Multi-ingredient foods must contain organic ingredients, with a few exceptions like the enzymes needed in yogurts or the baking soda in baked goods. They cannot contain artificial colors, preservatives or flavors.

Organic farms

To be labeled organic, products must come from certified organic farmers and facilities. To be certified, a producer must follow five steps:

1. Create an organic system plan detailing how the farm or facility will meet the guidelines.

2. Set up the system and have it reviewed by a certifying officer.

3. be inspected.

4. Have the inspection report reviewed by the certifying agent.

5. Receive a decision. Have annual inspections and reviews.

Understanding the Different USDA Organic Standards

The USDA uses four different organic labels. Here’s what each means:

100% organic: This means that all ingredients except water and salt are certified organic. This label is mainly used for raw, unprocessed or minimally processed plant and animal products, such as fresh produce or meat.

ORGANIC: Contains at least 95% organic ingredients (excluding salt and water)

Made with organic ___: Contains at least 70% organic ingredients. There are additional requirements that non-organic ingredients must meet.

Specific organic ingredients: This label is used for foods that contain less than 70% organic ingredients. It specifies which ingredients are organic, for example, “made with organic tomatoes”.

Is buying organic healthier?

Overhead view of a range of fruits and vegetables on a wooden chopping board.

The best way to eat a healthy, balanced diet is to eat a variety of foods.

Enrique Diaz/7cero/Getty Images

The most important way to have a healthier diet is to focus on a diverse diet.

“Ultimately, eating a variety of nutritious foods regularly is the most important aspect of good nutrition,” says Bryne.

Scientists are still trying to determine if organic foods are healthier. Consumers are divided, with 45% of American adults believing organic produce is healthier than non-organic produce.

“Buying organic isn’t necessarily healthier,” says Byrne. “Organic foods may be more nutritious in some cases, but not always.”

For example, a 2018 scientific study found a “likely human benefit” from consuming organic products. The study showed that dairy products and organic meats had more healthy omega-3 fatty acids, but not enough to make a nutritional impact. One of the main benefits of an organic diet could be to reduce exposure to antibiotics, which can contribute to antibiotic-resistant diseases, the study also found.

And while many organic food proponents cite low amounts of pesticides as a reason to assume organic foods are healthier, pesticides aren’t a huge health factor, Byrne says.

“Conventional foods contain these pesticide residues at such a low level that there’s probably not a huge health risk from consuming them,” says Byrne.

Is organic better for the environment?

While the human health effects of consuming organic produce are still proven, there is stronger evidence for environmental benefits, Steinberg says. Organic farms generally improve the quality of their soil over time, and the soil on organic farms has a healthier microbiome — or good bacteria — that can increase production.

Opting for organic labels can serve as a shortcut to finding more sustainable foods.

“If you’re looking for a quick and easy way to check a product’s sustainability, the organic label can be helpful,” says Byrne.

However, “the organic food conversation can be limiting and should be expanded to consider additional factors around sustainable eating,” Steinberg says.

If you want to increase sustainable eating, Steinberg suggests growing certain items at home, buying local items and buying seasonal produce to reduce the environmental impact of the expedition, and choosing foods that are low in consumption. processed because they use less energy in production. .

Should you buy organic?

Buying organic food can have health benefits for people and the environment. Organic produce has become more common, but it remains more expensive than conventionally grown produce and is not available to everyone, which is significant since 10% of US households are food insecure.

“The debate about whether organic food is better than conventional food has its place, but it is far more important that we focus on improving access to food in general, so that people can meet their basic nutritional needs,” says Ellis Hunnes.

People who can’t eat organic “will not sacrifice their personal nutritional health,” Steinberg says. Conventionally grown produce and agricultural products are always healthy, at a lower cost. However, if you have extra income, you can vote with your dollar by buying organic produce, showing your support for more sustainable environmental practices, she says.

Insider’s Takeaways

Organic foods and products meet production guidelines established by the USDA Agricultural Marketing Service. The guidelines dictate the practices and products that can be used to manufacture organic labeled items.

Although many people equate organic with health, the research is unclear on the effects of an organic diet on health. Buying organic produce is a personal choice, but other decisions — like buying from local farmers or making sure you get the recommended serving sizes of fruits and vegetables — can have a bigger impact on environmental health and personal.

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