Organic food labels: The 4 simple categories you need to know

This article features this week’s Thursday’s Real Food resource. If you enjoy this article, please consider subscribing to Almost Fit – it’s free, as always. Thanks.

In general, my children refused to eat anything that hadn’t danced on TV.” – Erma Bombeck

The next time you go to the grocery store, take a moment to look around at the products that happily await you. Everything from paradoxically happy cows to odd, stuffed toy dough characters try to engage you in a repartee over their intrinsic value in your cart (“hmmhmm!!!”). When I look at these shiny, colorful little packages from a marketing standpoint, one big question comes to mind:

How in the world do you make your product stand out amidst tens of thousands of other products in a single 42,000 square-foot megastore?

Open the food marketer’s little black book and one big trick will come tumbling out like a fish: “Healthy!” claims are one of the most effective means of getting attention. And these days, that contentious health buzzword Organic is on just about everything that doesn’t move. I imagine someone will soon invent Organic Tires or Organic Jet Fuel. Then again, maybe I’m too late.

Who started this whole organic vs. conventional business, anyway?

While organic proponents will enthusiastically remind you that “organic” farming has been around since the dawn of agriculture (true), in terms of modern food production the concept can be traced to around 90 years ago, when folks like Rebecca Kidd, Sir Albert Howard, and Rudolph Steiner (among many others) began to question the social and nutritional value of industrially produced foods. (Here’s a link to a fascinating read on the history of organic farming.)

Over time, it has evolved into a social ideology, a health movement, and a political fight that has polarized advocates and skeptics alike.

That being said, there are an awful lot of us in the middle, just trying to make sense of it all.

So how did it get on the label? Doesn’t the government control those things? Oh the dark political history runs rampant, but in short: The Organic Foods Protection Act was passed by congress in 1990. Where the rubber hits the road for you and me? In 2002 the USDA began to officially recognize (and oversee) the use of the term organic in food products, which really means that it sprung a whole bunch of lobbyists and ex-Y2K evangelists out of their barista jobs and back into “the game.”

What does organic on a food label really mean?

On a USDA-governed product label in the United States, organic means that *most* of the food components (to varying degrees) in the product have been grown, packaged, and transported using organic practices (not sure what organically transported means, but there it is). Water and salt in these food products must meet a set of criteria as well, but they are not measured against organic standards.

Within those guidelines however, is what you might call, “wiggle room.” Or, an entire cottage industry for Law School graduates.

How to read food labels that include the word Organic

There are essentially 4 categories of the use of the word organic on product labels that you should understand. In descending order from best to, well, not as good, the categories include the following:

  • “100% Organic”: Displayed on the front panel of a product (or the Principal Display Panel (PDP)), and includes the USDA stamp (though that is at the manufacturer’s discretion). Also may display a third-party certifier’s logo. All ingredients organically grown; none of the components irradiated; not grown with sewage sludge fertilizer (don’t think too much about what that implies about non-organic); does not contain genetically engineered organisms (GEOs). These last three requirements are known as, “the Big Three”.
  • “Organic”: Displayed on the front panel of a product (PDP), and can include the USDA stamp (optional). Also may display a third-party certifier’s logo. 95% of the ingredients (by weight or volume) are organic. May include up to 5% conventional ingredients as long as that 5% is not irradiated, is not grown with sewage sludge fertilizer, and does not contain GEOs (again, the Big Three).
  • “Made with organic […]” or similar: Up to 3 organically grown ingredients may be displayed on the PDP, but not as part of the product description. (Simple example: “Bob’s Organic Beet juice” is different than a jar of Bob’s Beet Juice with a note at the bottom that says, “Made with organic beets”). No USDA stamp, and no certifier’s stamp. Must contain 70% or more organically grown components, and all ingredients (including the non-organic elements) must adhere to the rules for the Big Three.
  • “Ingredients: organic […]”: Organical ingredients are allowed to be included in the ingredients list, but may not appear on the PDP. No certifications are displayed. Less than 70% organic components. For the non-organic ingredients, they are not required to satisfy the rules on the Big Three. This means they may (and I would suggest, likely) contain irradiated components, Genetically Engineered Organisms as part of the growing process, and have been fed sewer sludge as a fertilizer. Rather Soilent Green-ish if you think about it.

Thursday’s Real Food Resource: A Field Guide to Buying Organic

This week’s Real Food Resource is the book, A Field Guide to Buying Organic, by Luddene Perry and Dan Schultz (Bantom Books). The category information in this post was derived from this book, which includes a more detailed description (and pictures!) of what to look for on labels.

I’ve been reading this book on and off for weeks now, and to be frank, it has been truly better than I expected.

Why did I have low expectations?

In my experience so far, most books that have the word Organic in the title, ironically enough, are simply not very balanced in their assessment of the organic debate. This book on the other hand feels like a very objective look into the world of food production from a consumer’s standpoint. The book has a multitude of well-documented data that provides descriptions of the nutritional value, a real-world cost comparison, and details on the food production practices associated with both organic and conventional food. It also includes a great set of practical guidelines on the basics of educating yourself as a consumer, and helps you to tune those guidelines according to your own risk/value assessment. In other words, it says, “If you’re really nuts about this, don’t eat ANY of this stuff on the list. However, if you’re somewhere in the middle, you’re probably OK with these things. If you don’t care, here is some sludge. Eat at your own risk.” Just kidding.

This book, is highly recommended, and will continue to be a part of the references I use in future articles.

It’s offered here, on Amazon, for as low as $2.40 a copy.

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