Many grocery stores and farmers markets now sell foods that are identified as “organic.” It is currently estimated by the USDA that almost 60% of retail food chains have an “organic” section (up from 46% in 2007). This is a largely a result of consumer demand. So what exactly does “organic” mean? Is it the same as “natural”? Are organic foods better for you?
There was a time not so long ago that the term “organic” did not have a specific definition, nor was it truly overseen by an inspecting agency. However, The United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) started its National Organic Program (NOP) in 2002 and now has definite criteria that must be strictly met for a food to be called “organic.”
The term “organic” is governed by the way the food is produced and processed, following guidelines that address factors such as the soil that is used, animal raising practices, pest and weed control, and the use of additives. Farming methods must focus on renewable resources, conservation of soil and water and biodiversity.
If a product is produced and processed completely organic such as fruits, vegetables, eggs or other single-ingredient foods, they can be labeled 100% organic. Other foods can be called organic if they are at least 95% organic. The term “made with organic ingredients” can be used on products that contain at least 70% organic ingredients. There is a special seal that the USDA created that can be used by the first two groups. Its use is voluntary and does not have to appear on the product. The organic seal cannot be used on the “made with organic ingredients” products. Foods containing less than 70% organic ingredients can’t ever use the term “organic” on their packaging.
It is important to note that the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) is another branch of government that is responsible for protecting public health. With regards to food, it oversees food safety, sanitation and labeling. The FDA does NOT have a legal definition of “organic”. It is responsible for nutritional information on packaged foods, ingredients, nutrient content, health claims and allergy information.
Don’t confuse the term “natural” with organic. “Natural” is not regulated except for meat and poultry. Natural foods are not subject to government controls beyond the standard regulations and health codes that affect all foods. For meat and poultry, natural generally means free of artificial colors, flavors, preservatives and ingredients.
Are organic foods healthier? Safer? A large part of the consumer appeal of organic foods is related to how the food is grown and its relationship to the environment. Organic farmers typically do not use chemical fertilizers or herbicides, do not spray insecticides to reduce pests and disease, and do not give antibiotics, growth hormones or medications to animals. However, there is no data to show, and the USDA makes no claim, that organically grown foods are healthier, safer or more nutritious. They can contain as much fat and calories as their counterparts. There may be health benefits for those who have allergies or sensitivities to certain additives or preservatives. Some research also shows that organic foods may have significantly higher levels of antioxidants. There is mixed feeling on safety, with some officials believing organic foods may be less safe because there are no preservatives used, but with the Organic Farmers Association believing the strict production oversight makes the food safer.
What is Right for You? This is something you have to decide for yourself. Some people believe that organic foods taste better. Others are drawn to them because they don’t use harmful chemicals or are drawn to the environmentally-friendly farming methods. Some people won’t want to spend the extra money (organic foods are generally more expensive). Regardless of your decision, you do not have to eat “organically” to choose a healthy diet.
This column is written by V. Deborah Culligan and is presented to the residents of Woodbridge as a service of their public health department, Quinnipiack Valley Health District. The information for this column comes from the USDA and FDA websites. To learn more detail about organic regulations and farming, go to the websites, keyword “organic food”. If you do not have internet access and would like more information, QVHD residents (Bethany, Hamden, North Haven and Woodbridge) can call 203 248-4528 or request by email, firstname.lastname@example.org for written materials.