Organic for REAL?
Everywhere you look, food is trying to impress you with how natural it is, but the message is vague and often misleading. What does “organic” actually mean? What separates “grass-fed” from “free range”? We’re separating real, meaningful labels from eco-hype.
Even if you couldn’t care less about the growing media presence and consumer curiosity around food sourcing and handling, it helps to know what you’re getting when you’re forced to pay more for certain goods.
If it was just one government agency that offered semi-descriptive labels, a la the USDA’s meat grades, there wouldn’t be much to talk about outside the shop talk of butchers. But meat and produce carry a lot of labels and statements these days, ranging from very official imprints to generic terms. Here’s the Cliff’s Notes version of what you should look for.
The Word “Organic”
This is the biggie among food labels, and one of the most controversial. It’s a word that sounds black and white—either it grew up naturally and was brought to you without chemicals, hormones, pesticides, or radiation, or it didn’t, you’d think. But under federal law, any product with “organic” anywhere on its packaging or display materials must contain at least 70 percent organic ingredients.
To qualify as organic, those ingredients can’t contain, or be produced with, any of the following: chemical, additives, synthetics, pesticides, or genetically engineered substances. That’s the stated law, but, as you might imagine, those criteria can be subject to interpretation, and the USDA’s regulation of the “organic” label has come under questioning.
That said, there are different grades of organic labeling in the U.S. Here’s how the Washington Post breaks down the differences:
“100 Percent Organic” products must show an ingredient list, the name and address of the handler (bottler, distributor, importer, manufacturer, packer, processor) of the finished product, and the name and seal of the organic certifier. These products should contain no chemicals, additives, synthetics, pesticides or genetically engineered substances.
“USDA Organic” products must contain at least 95 percent organic ingredients. The five percent non-organic ingredients could include additives or synthetics if they are on an approved list. The label must contain a list that identifies the organic, as well as the non-organic, ingredients in the product, and the name of the organic certifier.
“Made With Organic” products must contain at least 70 percent organic ingredients. The label must contain a list that identifies the organic, as well as the non-organic, ingredients in the product, along with the name of the organic certifier.
“Natural,” “Grass-Fed,” And Other Labels
When it comes to concerns and criteria that the USDA and other government or state bodies don’t regulate, the path to knowledge gets a lot more twisty.