Food labels: really organic or not?

Recently I received the below message from a concerned Patient…

Dear Bibbey,

While at the market today I picked up  flyer that explained different labeling for foods.  Namely Organic Foods.  I found out that food labeled “USDA Organic” only needs to be 95% Organic to receive the “Organic” Label.  I was upset.  Here I am trying to eat right and I may be kidding myself.  What good is all the extra time, money and effort to eat organic if for example, I eat 16 oz of food and I may get about an oz of high fructose corn syrup or some other commercialize and harmful “food”.  Is there anything I can do to be sure I am getting 100% organic foods?

Here is my response:

That’s an excellent question especially in light of a recent Harris poll finding; 59% of consumers in the US view organic labeling simply as an excuse for companies to charge more money.  At the same time the percentage of the Americans concerned environmental issues has increased nearly 10% over the last year.  So, while on one hand people are more strongly identifying with environmental and conservation issues, American’s are becoming increasingly wary about the marketing tactics and increased costs associated with supporting the “green revolution.” 

So, your question about product labeling raises an interesting topic.  I think to fairly frame the answer though, it is worth revisiting the definition and use of the term, “organic”.  Source: USDA Gov’t website:

The regulations define four categories of organic products:

“100% organic” — Raw or processed agricultural products that contain 100 percent organic ingredients.

“Organic” — Agricultural products that contain not less than 95 percent organic ingredients.

“Made with [organic ingredients]” — Multi-ingredient products that contain at least 70 percent organicallyproduced ingredients.

Less than 70 percent organic ingredients — Multi-ingredient products that contain less than 70 percent organically produced ingredients.

A traditional use of the term “organic” identified produce and agro products grown or produced observing certain principles, which include proper soil management, no use of toxic pesticides nor genetically modified seed (GMO’s).  This traditional farming method has been largely abandoned, and is now in direct contrast to all of the “modern” advances in agriculture sciences, which have focused on reducing farming costs and increasing crop yield.  To maximize farming output, agricultural scientists have developed chemical fertilizers and pesticides, as well as, genetic variants of seeds that make crops grow more robustly while resistant to drought and disease.  These advancements and tradeoffs are complex; growers and their commercial partners have developed techniques to control some of the financial volatility historically common to farming – a labor intensive industry with unpredictable yield.  Unfortunately, achieving this level of crop confidence means that the food supply is now tainted.  Ultimately we are ingesting these soil and pesticide chemicals regularly; and the health effects of these and GMO’s are unknown.

The discussion and description about what is Organic, Certified Organic, 100% Organic, Contains Organic Ingredients, etc., has evolved to match consumer demands and purchasing trends.  At its simplest, Organic fruits, vegetables, grains, beans, animal products and animal by-products are those foods produced and brought to market without chemicals or harmful processes – they are cleaner are safer to eat.  The USDA grants Organic certifications to food producers for labeling purposes, based on an investigation and inspection of the methods and materials used.  The USDA has specific guidelines and requirements, which must be met by food and product makers to achieve a differentiated Organic labeling status. Food items, like carrots, kidney beans, tomatoes, celery that are labeled 100% Organic – clearly meet all the USDA inspection requirements needed.  But what has happened over the last decade to complicate product labeling is the growing consumer demand for healthier packaged goods, like Minestrone Soup: nothing against Minestrone.  But when a complex list of ingredients is involved – the lines begin to blur when making distinctions about whether, or not every ingredient has to be certified 100% organic for the product to retain its Organic description.  This is where all of the USDA certification labeling requirements might influence a company’s ingredient list and packaging language.  The USDA has established guidelines for labeling and various enforcement mechanisms to encourage food makers to carefully and accurately label their products.  Consequentially, part of the increased cost for organic foods includes regulatory fees passed on to the consumer.  So, decision making about the sources for ALL ingredients needed for a product are made, in part, based on the cost for using organic vs. commercially growth ingredients.  Then makers strike a bargain, based on relative and perceived harm of using ingredients that are not labeled organic.  For example, parsley used in the Minestrone can be sourced and grown both organically and commercially; the organic parsley cost twice the price of the commercial variety and it’s not reliably available June through September.  So, the maker might choose to use the less expensive, more reliably available parsley – it is not organic, because the grower hasn’t applied for organic certification from the USDA, but the parsley is grown at an indoor hydroponic farm.  The USDA leaves the door open for Organic product labeling with a 95% organic ingredient composition because instances and decisions like, the use and sources of parsley are commonplace, and it allowing an Organic labeling in these instances reflects a fairness standard.  The USDA leaves the door open for Organic product labeling with 95% organic ingredients because instances and decisions like, the use and sources of parsley are commonplace.  Company’s are permitted to label these products as organic, so long as they do not claim that it is 100% organic and the product label accurately reflects its ingredients. This policy also reflects a fairness standard for companies that want to compete in the organic product marketplace, whose products are ‘substantially” organic; and The USDA does not want to arbitrarily or overly restrict commerce.

Ultimately, as a consumer – you, me and everyone concerned with food quality issues has to take time to carefully read labels to get a complete understanding of what is in the product.  If you are concerned with an ingredient or the quality of a product – put it back on the shelf.  Check for a 100% Organic label or consult with a natural food specialist for a recommendation. 

If eating your way to vibrant health interest you, try one of our Food Therapy Programs. For more information contact David via email here Contact Us or call 352-464-1645