request info email to friend
Understanding Organic Food
You have been noticing a phenomenon at your local supermarket: an increase in foods labeled "organic." It used to be that you had to go to an organic farm or a food co-op to buy organic foods, but now you can find a wide variety almost anywhere.
You probably also have noticed that organic foods usually cost more than traditional foods. What is the difference, and is it significant enough to make eating organic food worth the extra cost?
The first part is easier to answer. The United States Department of Agriculture has developed standards for labeling foods as organic. If a food carries the USDA organic seal, it means that food is at least 95 percent organic. The use of the seal is not mandatory, although if a supplier uses the seal on a product that is not organic, it faces a hefty fine for each violation. Smaller vendors may choose to not use the seal and still be organic, as long as their production meets the USDA standards.
Organic refers to a specific type of food growth and preparation. Simply because a food is labeled "all-natural" does not mean it is organic. A food may also have other health-related labeling, such as "hormone-free" or "free-range." Foods with these labels may or may not also be organic.
The USDA has many requirements for a food to be listed as organic. These include:
- There can be no use of genetic engineering or ionizing radiation in production and handling. For the most part, only non-synthetic substances are allowed in the production of organic foods.
- Organic crops do not use most conventional pesticides, or petroleum-based or sewage sludge-based fertilizers. Organically raised animals must have access to the outdoors, must be given organic feed, and cannot be given antibiotics or growth hormones.
- In order to use the USDA seal, growers and processors must receive accreditation by submitting to the USDA a variety of information, including their organic system plan. The plan must include a detailed description of their growing or processing procedure, including processes and substances used, record-keeping and how they keep organic and non-organic substances separate. Farms and other operations that make less than $5,000 a year in organic production are exempt from certification. They can label their production as organic, but they can’t use the USDA seal.
- Products labeled 100 percent organic must, obviously, be 100 percent organically produced. A product can have the USDA organic seal if it is 95 percent or more organic. Products that are at least 70 percent organic can be labeled "made from organic ingredients" and can list up to three organic ingredients.
But are organic foods really better for you? That is harder to say, and there are studies that support both sides of the argument. Proponents of organic foods point to the fact that they are more humane for animals, that they do not use non-natural ingredients or processes, and that they encourage sustainable agriculture and small farmers. They also may be fresher, with more nutrients than more highly processed foods.
But other experts say that the health benefits – as opposed to the political or philosophical benefits – are relatively insignificant, especially if you have a limited food budget. Only you can decide whether organic foods are worth the higher cost.
The most important thing, experts do agree, is that eating more fresh fruits and vegetables, and fewer heavily processed foods, is a good way to control your weight and increase your chances for a healthy future.