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What is Organic Food?

The definition of organic food can seem a little hard to pin down. It varies by country. Even within the US, there are different levels of organic food. Find out about the international intent, the USDA’s definition, and the meaning of terms like transitional organic, grown using organic methods, and natural. Understanding these terms can help you avoid eating pesticides or wasting money on marketing hype.

USDA organic label

What is organic food?

Organics International captured the spirit of the four principles of organic agriculture with this definition, which they agreed on after almost three years of discussion:

Organic Agriculture is a production system that sustains the health of soils, ecosystems and people. It relies on ecological processes, biodiversity and cycles adapted to local conditions, rather than the use of inputs with adverse effects. Organic Agriculture combines tradition, innovation and science to benefit the shared environment and promote fair relationships and a good quality of life for all involved.

Organics International provides a template with minimum standards and other help for countries to create their own definitions of certified organic. Some countries don’t include all the aspects of the definition and others make their definitions even more strict.

What organic food isn’t

Organics International emphasizes that organic certification describes a growing process, not necessarily the quality of the results. You do have to clean organic food and keep it at safe temperatures just as you would any other food.

Organic food in the United States

The United States Department of Agriculture regulates organic food, saying it must be:

  1. Produced without genetic engineering, ionizing radiation, sewage sludge, and other excluded methods. There are standards for animal health and welfare, although of course the animals are still being raised as food.
  2. Produced using the National List of Allowed and Prohibited Substances. Unless they are on the list, synthetic substances are banned and non-synthetic substances are allowed. The list often specifies that substances can be used in ways that protect the environment. For example, newspaper mulch is allowed if it doesn’t have colored or glossy inks but arsenic and ash from burned manure are prohibited.
  3. Overseen by a USDA agent following all USDA organic regulations, unless the food comes from a very small farm (selling less than $5,000 a year) or produced using certified organic ingredients from other sources.

What are the different levels of organic food?

  • 100% organic: all ingredients and processing methods are certified organic, unless they are on the National List.
  • Organic: all agricultural ingredients must be certified organic. Up to 5% of non-agriculture, non-organic ingredients can be used. Salt and water are not included in the calculation.
  • “Made with” organic: at least 70% of the ingredients must be certified organic, except for salt and water. Other ingredients must not be produced with excluded methods (so still no GMOs or sewage sludge).
  • Products with less than 70% certified ingredients can mention what they use that is organic, but they can’t use the USDA organic seal or “organic” on the main label. These products don’t need to be overseen by an agent.

What about those other organic terms?

Especially at a farmers’ market, you might spot signs that don’t claim the organic label but do show attention to organic principles. You might spot these signs:

  • Transitional organic. The farm is in the process of becoming certified but has used prohibited substances within the last three years.
  • Grown using organic practices. The farm probably follows the first two USDA rules for growing organic food, but they don’t have an agent verify their practices, file the paperwork, or pay the fees. It becomes a matter of trust between you and the farmer.
  • Spray free or pesticide free. This probably means they don’t spray pesticides or herbicides on their crops. They may or may not use GMO seeds, prohibited substances, and other “conventional” practices.

I buy from a few non-certified farmers who are members of the Carolina Farm Stewardship Association. One of my favorites says his farm is more-ganic — more organic! — using even better practices than required but without the inspections. On the other hand, I was suspicious when all the blueberry stands at our state farmers market suddenly proclaimed their berries were spray free.

Feel free to ask farmers about their growing practices and how they differ from certified organic. Be polite, of course, and try to ask when there are few other customers. Many farms have websites that give more details on their operations. Go on a farm tour if you can.

What is “natural food”?

The term “natural” for food may show good intentions or it may simply mean “buy me.”  Alarmingly, Consumer Reports found that the majority of shoppers seek out food with “natural” label, even though it is unregulated and may contain some pretty horrifying ingredients.  I agree with Consumer Reports that the term “natural” should either be defined or banned on food labels.

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