Deciphering food labels and marketing claims can be a challenge for the average consumer. Companies use production and handling claims as a way to differentiate their products in the marketplace. “Organic” can seem like just another label, so understanding what it really means will help you make informed choices when shopping for food.
USDA-certified organic foods are grown and processed according to federal guidelines that address soil quality, animal raising practices, pest and weed control and use of additives. Organic producers rely on natural substances and physical, mechanical or biologically based farming methods to the fullest extent possible.
- Produce can be called organic if it grew on soil that had no prohibited substances applied for three years prior to harvest. Prohibited substances include synthetic fertilizers and pesticides. When a grower has to use a synthetic substance to achieve a specific purpose, the substance must first be approved according to criteria that examine its effects on human health and the environment.
- As for organic meat, regulations require that animals are raised in living conditions that accommodate their natural behaviors (like the ability to graze on pasture), fed 100% organic feed and forage and not administered antibiotics or hormones.
- When it comes to processed, multi-ingredient foods, the USDA organic standards specify additional considerations. Regulations prohibit organically processed foods from containing artificial preservatives, colors or flavors and require that their ingredients are organic, with some minor exceptions. For example, processed organic foods may contain some approved non-agricultural ingredients, like enzymes in yogurt, pectin in fruit jams or baking soda in baked goods.
When packaged products indicate they are “made with organic [specific ingredient or food group],” this means they contain at least 70% organically produced ingredients. The remaining non-organic ingredients are produced without using prohibited practices (genetic engineering, for example) but can include substances that would not otherwise be allowed in 100% organic products. “Made with organic” products will not bear the USDA organic seal.
As with all organic foods, none of it is grown or handled using genetically modified organisms, which organic standards expressly prohibit.
While there are many marketing claims that add value to foods, you can be assured that USDA organic products are verified organic at all steps between the farm and the store.