Lately, there has been a trend toward the consumption of more organic food. Organic food is thought by some to be healthier, offering consumers food that is free of pesticides, hormones, antibiotics and chemicals. The idea of eating food that is more “natural” is attractive to some who want to increase the overall health of their diets.
Produce, meat, dairy and other food consumables are often labeled as “organic” in order to encourage sales. If you are making an effort to focus more on organic food, you probably rely on labels to help you decide which foods to buy. But, before you buy, it is a good idea to understand some of the common terms used to label food as “organic” or “natural”. You might be surprised to find that your food may not be as organic as you thought.
USDA Organic Label
The first thing to look for is the USDA Organic seal. This seal is displayed on products that contain at least 95% organic ingredients. This means that, unless the product is certified as 100% organic from the USDA, you might not consuming something that is completely organic. You can check the ingredient list on the back for more information. Are there long chemical names involved? Do you see dyes, like Yellow 40? Truly organic foods are free of dyes and preservatives.
There are other designations you might see as well. The label “made with organic ingredients” indicates that at least 70% of the ingredients in the food are organic. However, this is not a high enough rating to bear the USDA Organic seal. If the food has less than 70% organic ingredients, the label will say “contains organic ingredients.” It’s up to you to decide how important you think it is to get something 100% organic.
Reading Meat, Dairy and Poultry Labels
There is an additional lexicon used for reading meat, dairy and poultry labels. These include the following claims:
- Grass fed
- No hormones added
It is important to realize that these terms are not very heavily enforced, and that they may not necessarily mean what you think they mean.
When something is labeled “natural”, that just means that it has been minimally processed. It can’t contain preservatives, artificial flavors, or colors. However, the presence of growth enhancers and antibiotics does not affect the “natural” label, so if you are concerned about those issues, just reading that something is “natural” isn’t enough.
The “grass fed” label refers to being fed entirely on grass and having access to the outdoors. This does not mean that the animals aren’t kept inside for a good portion of the day. It doesn’t even have to guarantee that the animals are grazing on grass. It can mean that they have access to an outdoor corral for a couple of hours a day, and are brought grass in a trough. Regardless, though, grass fed beef is generally considered healthier, since it has a higher incidence of omega-3 fatty acids than grain fed cows.
If you are concerned about hormones, you might look for the “no hormones added” or “hormone-free” label. You should note, though, that by law pork and poultry can’t be treated with hormones, so the label is just something nice to reel in you in – and maybe convince you to pay extra. With dairy products and beef products, though, this label is helpful, since they are allowed by law. If hormone free products are important to you, look for this certification when you buy beef and dairy.
“Free-range” is another potentially misleading label. This is often used on poultry and eggs. All it means is that animals aren’t kept in cages, and that they have access to the outdoors. In some instances of poultry, this means that chickens are kept in high-density sheds and are only outside for a short amount of time. “Cage-free” is a similar label.
Being aware of what organic food labels mean can help you make decisions, but the only way to be completely sure that your produce is truly organic, and the animal products you buy are obtained in as humane a way as possible, is to buy locally from an operation that you can visit and observe. Only then can you be sure you are getting the health benefits you expect.