While many people understand that products bearing the marker of “organic” are healthier, the true meaning behind the term remains elusive to many. In order for a product to garner the label of organic, there are a number of federal guidelines that growers and processors must adhere to regarding soil quality, animal husbandry practices, and pest and weed control methods. Here’s a breakdown of what it takes for a product to become certified organic:
Produce must be grown on soil that has been free of prohibited substances for at least three years prior to harvest. These substances include the majority of synthetic pesticides and fertilizers.
Animals may not be treated with antibiotics or hormones, and they must be fed 100% organic feed and forage.
Animals must be raised in living conditions that accommodate their natural behaviors.
Processed, multi-ingredient foods are not allowed to contain artificial preservatives, colors, or flavors
The use of genetically modified organisms (GMOs) are strictly prohibited.
The use of ionizing radiation is not allowed. Ionizing radiation is used to sterilize foods, destroy microorganisms, kill insects on imported fruits, and delay the ripening of fruit in order to increase its shelf life.
When it comes to packaged foods, however, the meaning of the organic label is not quite as clear-cut. Packaged products that state they are “made with organic [specific ingredient or food group]” contain at least 70% organic ingredients, while the other 30% can be sourced from conventional producers that use pesticides, GMOs, artificial coloring, etc. In order for a packaged product to be made with totally organic ingredients, it must state that it is made with 100% organic ingredients.
If one can afford to buy organic foods, it is worthwhile to do so from a nutrition and health perspective. Organic foods and animals are raised on healthier soil without the use of harmful chemicals, and are documented to have higher nutrient contents than conventionally grown foods. Certain foods are better bought organic than others because they are subjected to greater amounts of pesticide use. A list of the most contaminated foods, termed the “dirty dozen,” includes: peaches, apples, sweet bell peppers, celery, nectarines, strawberries, cherries, pears, grapes, spinach, lettuce, and potatoes. The least contaminated foods of which you can pass on the organic version if the price difference is a burden are: onions, avocado, pineapple, mango, asparagus, kiwi, bananas, cabbage, broccoli, and papaya. Better yet, purchase your produce at your local farmer’s market. Small-scale producers use fewer pesticides (if any), pick produce at the peak of ripeness, and generally grow their produce in better quality soil, which translates to better quality produce.
“Food Irradiation: What You Need to Know.” Fda.gov. U.S. Food and Drug Administration, 28 June 2016. Web.
McEvoy, Miles. “USDA Blog » Organic 101: What the USDA Organic Label Means.” USDA Blog RSS 2. United States Department of Agriculture, 22 Mar. 2012.