Have you ever bought a food product just because it was labeled “organic,” and you thought it sounded healthy? Like organic breakfast cereal, or popcorn made with all-natural ingredients? Did you ever question what any of those labels actually mean?
Many of us go to the grocery store and buy something that is labeled organic because we believe we are making a healthy and environmentally conscious choice. In most cases, you are right! Certified organic products are better for you and do less damage to the environment. There are a lot of government regulations and standards that must be met in order for a product to be organic, all of which ensure the food you are eating is the highest quality.
However, conventional food companies have managed to milk the word “organic” in an effort to sway consumers to believe their products are healthier than they are. This is the result of the recent resurgence of healthy eating, which has led to a growing demand for organic products.
A lot of grocery stores these days have entire “green” sections, in which most of the products are labeled organic or natural. But, it’s important that consumers are aware of what organic products really are. We’re here to unblur the lines and be transparent about what’s actually in your food products.
The Difference Between “Natural” and “Organic”
A lot of people use the words “natural” and “organic” interchangeably when talking about food products. Believe it or not, there is a reason companies specify if their ingredients are natural or organic. It’s very important for consumers to understand the key differences between the two terms.
For starters, natural foods are normally barely processed and do not contain any hormones, antibiotics, or artificial flavors. However, there is absolutely no guarantee that products labeled “natural” are actually natural. The “requirements” for natural products are simply guidelines that companies set up for themselves. There are no federal rules or regulations set to ensure that companies are truthful when labeling something as natural. Because of this, companies often freely use the word “natural” on packaging for products that really contain lots of processed ingredients.
Organic ingredients, on the other hand, are heavily regulated by the USDA. When a product is labeled “organic,” it is guaranteed that no toxic synthetic pesticides, toxic synthetic herbicides, or chemical NPK fertilizers are used in production, and no antibiotics or growth hormones are given to animals. Third-party inspectors also perform meticulous checkups on organic producers and growers to ensure that products are up to standards. Organic products are put through a more thorough process because they have to be certified by the US government. An organic seal goes on every product that reaches the standards. There is a lot of effort put into earning that sticker!
How Organic Ingredients Can Be Listed
Once a product gets certified by the USDA as “organic,” it is placed into a certain division to determine how it will be marketed to consumers. There are four categories of product labels that can be placed on certified organic products. The different classifications are based on the amount of organic processes and ingredients used in the product.
This label is given to products that are produced using only organic methods and ingredients. 100% organic products are not allowed to contain any ingredients from the National List of Prohibited Substances. The USDA seal is found on the front of 100% organic products. Because it is so difficult to ensure that a product is 100% organic, a majority of products with this label only contain one ingredient: our organic bananas being one of them.
Organic products are created with a minimum of 95% organic ingredients and 100% organic processes. The five percent of ingredients that are not required to be organic but must be non-GMO and must be included on the National List of non-organic ingredients permitted in certified organic agriculture and processing. Products labeled “organic” are marked with the USDA seal on the front of the packaging. Most of the organic products that you see at the grocery store fall under this category. While some of the ingredients may contain traces of the chemicals used in conventional farming, they are in such minuscule amounts that they are negligible.
“Made with Organic Ingredients”
Products in this category contain at least 70% organic ingredients. These products are not allowed to place the USDA seal on the package. However, they are allowed to list on the front of the package up to three organic ingredients or food groups used. This category is great for companies that want to work their way up towards an “organic” or “100% organic” label. It shows that a company is making an effort to incorporate organic ingredients. However, as a consumer, it’s important to understand that you are not getting a fully organic product.
The last category is meant for products made with less than 70% organic ingredients. They are permitted to list on the ingredient panel any organic ingredients used. They cannot use the USDA seal or the phrase “made with organic ingredients” on the front of the packaging. This is the most basic form of marketing government-certified organic products.
What the USDA Organic Seal Means
Products with the USDA organic seal have been certified by the US government and are in accordance with the National Organic Program. This means that they have passed countless tests and have reached a high set of standards. When companies and products become certifiably organic, they are required to use the USDA organic seal on the front of the packaging. The company must follow the guidelines as to what the seal looks like. Rules are laid out on the USDA website that specify colors, shapes, sizes, and fonts of the seal. If a product that is labeled “organic” is not found to reach USDA standards, the company can be fined up to $17,952. This makes it vital for food companies to know the rules and regulations for organic products.
There is clearly a lot more that goes behind one small certifiable label on the front of a box. Knowing the distinctions between food labels will make you a more educated shopper. You might start to realize the “good” companies and the “bad” companies when it comes to labeling. No matter what you are buying, be sure to read the nutritional information panel on the product to get the best sense of what is actually in it.