Organic foods: Understanding the labels

Sometimes it seems that making a choice in the produce aisle is harder than it needs to be; start with gaining an understanding of what the labels mean – and don’t mean.

Have you ever tried to figure out exactly what you are buying in the produce aisle? Is it local? Organic? Has it been genetically modified? Everything has a sticker or a label, and everything should have a country of origin named, but sometimes it seems that making a choice in the produce aisle is harder than it needs to be.

Here are some tips to understanding all those labels:

Organic food

Produce that has a five-digit number beginning with a “9.” Organic Kiwi, for example, would be given the designation of “94039.” But how organic is it?

100% Organic or Certified Organic means that all of the substances, ingredients, processing aids, food additives, including colors and flavors, are certified organic.

USDA Organic means that 95 percent of the ingredients are organic, leaving the remaining five percent open to “allowable” substances from the United States Department of Agriculture's (USDA) national list of allowed substances and include such things as:

  • Synthetic substances allowed in organic crop production.
  • Synthetic inert ingredients as classified by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) for use with non-synthetic substances or synthetic substances used as an active allowed crop or livestock pesticide ingredient.
  • Non-synthetic substances prohibited for use in organic crop, livestock production and processing.
  • Synthetic substances allowed for use in organic livestock production.
  • Nonagricultural, non-organic (both non-synthetic and synthetic) substances allowed as ingredients in or on processed products labeled as "organic" or "made with organic (specified ingredients or food group(s))."
  • Non-organically produced agricultural products allowed as ingredients in or on processed products labeled as organic or made-with-organic ingredients.

Made-with-organic ingredients means that 70 percent of the ingredients must be organic. The other 30 percent contain non-organic ingredients and synthetic substances normally allowed in conventional food and fiber production. Products with less than 70 percent organic ingredients have to list only the organic ingredients on the ingredient panel rather than the primary panel.

Certified Naturally Grown refers to the adherence to to organic principles, plus some that are more strict; inspection not done by the USDA but by other farmers.

Natural, All Natural, Naturally Raised, etc.
The USDA regulates the word "natural" on labels only for meat and poultry. When used on other products, the definition of "natural" varies. In meat, it means no chemical preservatives or artificial ingredients. It does not necessarily mean the animal is antibiotic-free, hormone-free or has had time outdoors.


Conventional produce

Produce has a four-digit number beginning with a "3" or "4." Therefore, the number on conventionally-grown bananas would be "4011." Conventional producers in the U.S.A. are still required to meet many safety standards for herbicides and pesticides.


Genetically-altered produce

Genetically-altered produce also has a five-digit number on the label  and begins with an 8. The number on genetically altered bananas would be 8-4011. Producers are not required to disclose if their produce is genetically altered. Remember, hybrid plants are not genetically altered, they are a cross between 2 like species

It is any healthier if it’s organic? There really isn’t a definitive answer. Studies conflict and the study designs aren’t that great. One thing is for certain: eating fruits and vegetables improves health – regardless of whether they are organically or conventionally grown.  We do, however, know that organic farming is good for the environment.

The best way to make use of labeling without being overwhelmed is to decide what is important to you, then look for that identifying information on the label. You can reduce label overload in the produce aisle by understanding the terms and focusing on just what you need to know.

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