Consumers who buy organic foods often believe the foods are healthier; more environmentally friendly, taste better, or all three. As these products generally carry a higher price tag, some unscrupulous producers have attempted to cash in with confusing food labels. Regardless of the reason for going organic, it is important for consumers to understand what "organic" foods labels really mean.
Defining Organic Food
Organically produced food ingredients are those that are produced according to the principles of organic farming. Organic farmers use only natural fertilizers such as manure and compost on their plants and soil. Organic farmers do not use chemical pesticides. Rather, they use a combination of natural techniques such as mating disruption and beneficial birds and insects to control pests. They do not use hormones or medications to encourage livestock health and growth, but rely instead on preventing disease and providing organic feed and exercise. Organic farmers also take steps to minimize pollution and encourage conservation.
A USDA "organic" seal is not mandatory, and many organic food packages do not display it. Those that do must meet these requirements:
Foods that are labeled as "100% organic" must meet stringent guidelines. The food must contain only organically produced ingredients, except for added water and salt. The packaging must show a full ingredient list, and each ingredient may be separately labeled as organic, if desired. The name of the organic certifying agency must be clearly shown on the packaging, and the USDA Organic seal may be displayed.
Foods that are labeled "organic" must contain at least 95% organic ingredients. The product may include up to 5% permitted non-organic ingredients but may not contain sulfites. The product must contain a detailed ingredient list that specifies the organic ingredients as such. The name of the organic certifying agency must be clearly marked, and the food may carry the USDA Organic seal.
Made with Organic Ingredients
A food that is claimed to be "made with organic ingredients" must contain at least 70% organically produced ingredients. The item may contain up to 30% permitted non-organic ingredients, but only wine products may include sulfites. The product must contain a detailed ingredient list that clearly lists the organic ingredients. The name of the organic certifying agency must appear on the packaging. These products may not display the USDA seal of organic certification.
Natural, free-range and hormone-free are just a few of the labels that may be confused with "organic." However, these labels do not necessarily mean that a product is organically produced. Only those products that specifically carry the "organic" label can be assumed to contain organic ingredients.