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Which Foods Are Truly Organic, And What Does It Mean For Me?

“Certified Organic,” “100% Organic,” “Organic”—aren’t they all created equal? Read on to find out!

Published: 9/10/18

Food labels can be confusing. That’s something most people can agree on which is just one of the reasons “organic” food has become so widely popular in the last few years: People have embraced its implied simplicity. If you’re like us, you feel a sense of confidence when you can identify all the ingredients in a product without having to ask Siri or Alexa for assistance.

The problems arise, however, by the fact that not all food that’s labeled as “organic” is created equal. Some food items labeled as such may not be telling you the whole story about what you are putting in your body.

Organic is Organic is Organic, Right?

You’d think the answer would be pretty straightforward. But, it’s not. It turns out that food manufacturers have different ideas about what being organic truly means. First, let’s cover what truly organic food is: Organic meat, chicken, and dairy products come from animals that are fed no antibiotics or growth hormones. When it comes to produce, organic means the fruits and vegetables are grown without using pesticides, synthetic fertilizers or genetically modified organisms.

If you see the “USDA Organic” or “Certified Organic” label on your food, it must include a list of ingredients. All of the contents should be 95% or more certified organic, meaning free of synthetic additives (like pesticides), and the food cannot be processed using industrial solvents or genetic engineering.

According to the USDA, the goal of organic foods and organic farming is to: “integrate cultural, biological, and mechanical practices that foster cycling of resources, promote ecological balance, and conserve biodiversity.

Why the Confusion Then?

Everyone has his or her own take on what “organic” means. “Certified Organic” isn’t the only label you’ll see at the grocery store. Thanks to crafty marketing, you might also see “Organic,” “100% Organic,” “Made Organically” or some other similarly phrased tweak on “organic,” and all of these messages can mean different things. The USDA seal should not be found anywhere on the packaging of food that does not meet its specific standards.

Understandably, many worry that “organic” has simply turned into a marketing gimmick with very little meaning or authority.  There are penalties for violating the government’s organic labeling rules, but the fines are minimal, and some companies might take the chance they won’t get caught—so always read your labels carefully, and be aware of what you’re buying!

Should I Buy Organic Food?

The short answer? Yes. But, a decision like this is entirely up to you, your budget, and what science you believe. Most would assume that organic food has a higher nutritional value because of its so-called purity. But, a study published by the American College of Physicians found that organic food does not have higher vitamin or mineral content than the same food grown using conventional methods. However, consuming organic foods may reduce exposure to pesticides residues and antibiotic-resistant bacteria, which is more healthy overall. 

For others, it might be about something as simple as taste. Some people swear that organic foods just taste better or fresher to them. We’ll leave that up to you to decide. Another factor that comes into play is price. In the supermarket, the price of organic food is usually higher than food produced by conventional methods. But if you hit a local farmer’s market for your produce, you’re likely to score good deals on all things organic. And when you can, that is precisely what you should opt for.

Ultimately, it’s up to you to decide whether the money you spend on your groceries should make a statement about more humane conditions for animals, fewer pesticides on our planet, or environmental sustainability in general. You can make a change with your dollar, spend it wisely. 

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