organic labels

The Organic Industry: Who To Trust, And How To Shop Right

Photo courtesy of Rusty Clark via Flickr, modified by Curiousmatic. 

In the last several decades, the demand for healthy and organic food has grown significantly — and with it, the amount of certified organic operations that provide such food.

Organic labels promise meat and produce that is free of GMOs, hormones, additives, pesticides, and other pollutants, that is produced in healthy and humane conditions. But should consumers trust these claims?

How it works

According to the USDA, as of 2014, the organic industry is comprised of a record-breaking 18,513 certified organic farms and businesses in the U.S. alone: a 245 percent increase since 2002.

Organic products have fairly strict criteria for production and labeling, and must be certified and authorized by the USDA. Standards include clean agricultural practices, animal welfare, and the protection of natural resources and biodiversity.

Certified organic products are branded with a USDA organic seal, which guarantees that the product meets their standards, and contains 95 percent or more certified organic content.

Knowing the source

Ethically minded folks who are willing to put aside any potential misgivings for the sake of ethical consumption may still want to know: regarding different organic labels, what is actually meaningful?

Nerd Fitness blogger Steve offers several tips, including this:

  • “All natural” and “no sugar added” labels are essentially meaningless
  • “Animal Welfare Approved” and “Grass fed” labels are best when buying meat and poultry
  • In general, real food is always better than processed food, regardless of marketing promises

Regarding which foods it makes a difference to buy organically, health blogger Mark Sisson suggests that baby food, full-fat dairy, beef, chicken, eggs leafy greens, apples, and berries be bought organic whenever possible. However, foods like onions, avocado, honey, asparagus, sweet potatoes, and coconuts are fine to buy conventionally.

Really in a quandary? Buy locally. It’s more expensive, but only when you’re truly familiar with the source of your food will you know you can really trust it.

Problems with organic

Like other popular food trends, there is certainly a fair amount of hype around organic. Some oft-overlooked issues include:

[contextly_auto_sidebar id=”CkxVEeLEBbIiDW5NDSdEzJ6bIJmIonTu”]Cost: Typically, organic products are anywhere between 20 and 100 percent more expensive than their conventional counterparts, the NY Times found.

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Foreign imports: When organic food is imported from other countries, USDA officials can’t inspect it first hand, and must instead rely on third-party inspectors from countries like China, with no guarantee of their honesty.

Toxicity: Just because U.S.-based organic companies meet USDA standards doesn’t mean they’re necessarily any better for you. Organic pesticides can in some cases be more toxic than synthetic ones as well, and composts can still contain contaminants like heavy metal.

Health: Though organic produce has in some studies been shown to contain more antioxidants, for the most part it’s been proven no healthier than conventionally grown food. Since it’s usually educated and financially well-off people that buy it, a group that is already healthy, the difference it makes is miniscule.

Market share: Lastly, supporting organic isn’t always the same as supporting local or supporting small farms, especially because many organic farms are owned by huge corporations, or located overseas.

These conglomerates, which include Kraft, Coca Cola, and Kellogg, also reportedly lobby the USDA for the inclusion of their products.

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Jennifer Markert