“Organic” has graduated from buzzword to a lifestyle staple in the lives of millions of Americans. But what does organic actually mean? And, how can we tell if we are eating real certified organic food?
In a huge market of conscious consumables, here are a few tips for differentiating between the genuinely certified organic and the rest.
What Makes Food Certified Organic?
The idea behind qualifying a product as organic seems pretty straightforward. A basic description is merely the absence of unnatural elements when creating and harvesting products.
As for produce and other naturally occurring products, this implies an absence of sewage, any genetically modified organisms, pesticides or fertilizers in the farming process. In animal byproducts, it indicates a lack of antibiotics or growth hormones, like organic beef.
Simple enough right? These descriptions sound like food our ancestors once ate.
Things have changed.
Our food supply went from the family farm to massive farms that supply endless amounts of supermarkets feeding millions of people every day. This type of demand has created ripples.
Organic food is produced by farmers who emphasize the use of renewable resources and the conservation of soil and water to enhance environmental quality for future generations. Organic meat, poultry, eggs, and dairy products come from animals that are given no antibiotics or growth hormones. Organic food is produced without using most conventional pesticides; fertilizers made with synthetic ingredients or sewage sludge; bioengineering; or ionizing radiation.
- United States Department of Agriculture
How To Tell If Food Is Certified Organic By The Label
The easiest way to differentiate between certified organic products and non-certified is to simply look out for a USDA organic seal. These seals ensure that the products are cultivated in an organic-certified environment, with an organic system plan and records of compliance with USDA regulations.
There are three types of seals, coinciding with the three levels of certified organic status, created by The USDA.
The Three Certified Organic Food Categories Are:
- 100% Organic: Made with 100% organic ingredients
- Organic: Made with at least 95% organic ingredients
- Made with organic ingredients: Made with a “minimum of 70% organic ingredients with strict restrictions on the remaining 30%”, including no GMOs (genetically modified organisms).
Before a product can be labeled “organic,” a Government-approved certifier inspects the farm where the food is grown to make sure the farmer is following all the rules necessary to meet USDA organic standards. Companies that handle or process organic food before it gets to your local supermarket or restaurant must be certified, too.
- United States Department of Agriculture
Any product with 70% or less organic ingredients may list organically produced ingredients on product packaging, but may not bare certified organic claims prominently on the packaging.
Quick Organic Produce Guide
If you are in the produce section, look for numbers that start with a “9”. The first number in the ‘Product Look Up’ or PLU lets you know whether it was conventionally grown (3 or 4), genetically modified (8) or organically grown (9).
A four digit number that starts with 3 or 4 means it was conventionally grown, meaning the peel of that product could be heavily coated with pesticides. Wash this item thoroughly! A great rule to avoid the pesticides is to ditch the peel altogether.
A five digit number starting with 9 means it is organically grown, so “9 is fine”!
If you see a five digit number starting with 8, this means the seed and/or produce itself has been genetically modified (GM), genetically engineered (GE) or is a genetically modified organism (GMOs). Rumor has it this type of labeling for GMOs will soon be retired making it harder to tell if a product/food was altered in a lab or not.
Are There Organic Food Products Without a USDA Certified Organic Seal?
The short answer is: yes.
Many farmers practice natural, non-environmentally harmful farming practices to ensure overall food safety and quality.
A few examples of when you may not see a USDA sticker are:
- A farm could be exempt based on sales, for instance, any farm that sells less than $5,000 in organic products a year. These farms may still embrace natural, organic practices in their farming. If shopping with a local farm, ask about their practices!
- Some local or smaller scale growers may choose not to seek out USDA certification, but may still decide to adhere to an environmentally conscious, organic farming routine. Look closely at labels or ask questions to find out!
- Sometimes even the USDA can make mistakes and oversights can happen.
Can You Tell If Food Is Certified Organic By Quality and Taste?
While scientific evidence has yet to be gathered to prove whether or not certified organic food taste better, many chefs and consumers insist that the lack of synthetic chemicals definitely improves taste profiles!
Even the improved quality of soil (when chemicals are eliminated) can contribute to more fresh, natural tasting produce and animal products.
Next time you are looking for certified organic products in your local market, look for the official seals to ensure you are taking home the best quality products available.
If Farmers Markets are your thing, get to know your farmers and ask them about their growing processes to make sure you are selecting the best possible food option for your family.