Confusion among consumers is a great tool to help food manufacturers increase food sales. With an ever-increasing public interest in eating healthy, nutritious foods, companies go to great lengths to promote their products as ‘natural’, ‘organic’, ‘low-fat’, or whatever the public is currently asking for. But the terms they use are often misunderstood, leading us to believe that foods are good for us, when they are not.
The term ‘organic’ is one of those terms that creates confusion among consumers. In particular, many people seem to think that because a food is organic, it must be healthy. But is that true? What does ‘organic’ really mean in relation to food items?
What Does ‘Organic’ Mean?
Certified organic foods are foods that meet strict production guidelines set by the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA). The USDA provides an ‘Organic Seal’ to crops, livestock, and multi-ingredient foods that are produced following those guidelines. In general, the regulations cover issues including soil and water quality, pest control, livestock practices, and food additive rules. The overall purpose of the standards is to protect natural resources, preserve biodiversity, ensure the health and welfare of animals, and ensure the use of only approved substances. In particular, the USDA organic seal verifies the following:
- Organic crops are produced without irradiation, sewage sludge, synthetic fertilizers, prohibited pesticides, and genetically modified organisms.
- Organic livestock producers adhere to animal health and welfare standards, use 100% organic feed, do not use antibiotics or growth hormones, and give the animals access to the outdoors.
- Organic multi-ingredient foods are produced with 95% or more certified organic content.
Foods produced in accordance with these USDA regulations are allowed to bear the certified organic seal which looks like this:
What Do Organic Food Label Claims Mean?
While it is easy to understand what a producer must do to be allowed to use the organic seal on its product, it gets a little more complicated when applying it to multi-ingredient foods. There are a few different food label claims that producers can make, and they all mean something slightly different. Here is a summary to help you understand them next time you are at the grocery store.
1. “100% Organic”
A product bearing the certified organic seal (pictured above) with the phrase “100% Organic” was made with 100% organic ingredients.
A product bearing the certified organic seal with the word “Organic” was made with at least 95% organic ingredients.
3. “Made with organic ingredients”
A product bearing the phrase, “Made with organic ingredients”, but no certified organic seal was made with at least 70% organic ingredients.
4. Organic ingredients listed on side panel
A product that lists organic ingredients on the side panel of the packaging, but with no seal and no organic claims on the front of the package, was made with less than 70% organic ingredients.
Are Organic Foods Healthy?
So that brings us to the original question. It’s organic, so does that mean it’s healthy? The answer depends on what you mean by healthy.
- If you are concerned about the health implications of consuming pesticide and fertilizer residues, GMOs, antibiotics, and growth hormones, then yes organic foods are healthier than non-organic.
- If you are concerned about the preservation of nutrients in a naturally nutrient-dense food (for example, a piece of fruit), then no, organic foods do not differ significantly in their nutrient content from their non-organic counterparts.
- If you are wondering if the term ‘organic’ means the product is generally healthy in terms of fat, sugar, sodium, or nutrient content (for example, is a granola bar healthy because it is organic), the answer is no. It is quite possible to have a certified organic food product that is high in saturated fat, sugar, or sodium, and low in nutrients.
So there you have it. Organic products do have some health benefits in terms of lower pesticide, fertilizer, GMO, antibiotic, and growth hormone residues. They are also produced in a way designed to help protect the environment. However, being organic does not mean that a food has a higher nutrient content than a non-organic food.