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Organic Foods 101: What You Should Know About What You're Eating

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Organic Foods 101: What You Need to Know About What You're Eating MonkeyBusiness Images/PhotoSpin

Since the early 1990s, organic food has regained favor in mainstream America. This trend has increased as people are becoming more aware of potential health dangers from the use of toxic pesticides, growth hormones, cloned and genetically modified organisms (GMOs), as well as pollution-producing and unsustainable farming practices.

In 2014, organics grew 11.3 percent from the previous year, totaling $39.1 billion in sales, according to an Organic Trade Association market analysis. Last year, organic sales made up nearly 5 percent of the total U.S. food market.

Organic products are now available nationwide, and are likely in your neighborhood grocery store right now. Understanding just what organic means, and whether there are benefits in eating organically, as well as knowing just what to look for when purchasing organic products, can all be pretty confusing.

Organic versus Natural

Many people confuse the terms “natural” and “organic,” or think they mean the same thing, but in the retail marketing world, the terms are not interchangeable.

Organic products by definition are natural, however, not all natural products are necessarily organic. To be labeled organic in the United States, agricultural foods, textiles, cosmetics and personal care products must meet strict production and labeling requirements.

Organic refers to the food itself, as well as to how it’s produced and processed.

Organic farmers use methods that recycle resources, and also promote renewable practices and biodiversity without the use of synthetic pesticides, bio-engineered genes, and petroleum-based or sewage sludge-based fertilizers, according the U.S. Dept. of Agriculture. The USDA is the federal agency that oversees organic labeling of products.

It also requires organic livestock to have access to the outdoors, and not be given any antibiotics or growth hormones. Unlike conventionally grown food, organic foods are not subject to ionizing radiation, known as irradiation. (More on this later.)

“Natural” is a broadly used term that is generally applied to minimally processed foods free of synthetic preservatives, artificial sweeteners, colors, flavors and other artificial additives. With the exception of poultry and meats, the USDA does not regulate foods labeled “natural” beyond the regulations and health codes applied to all foods.

When shopping for organic food it’s important to note that not all organics are equal. The USDA National Organic Program, implemented in 2002, allows different levels of raw and processed products to be labeled organic if they meet certain standards.

Generally speaking, to make any organic claim or to use the USDA organic symbol anywhere on the food package, growers and manufacturers must certify the product’s ingredients following all USDA organic regulations. They must also meet the National List of Allowed and Prohibited Substances.

However, some operations are exempt from certification, such as small organic farmers who sell their products locally and whose annual revenue is $5,000 or less.

Organic Certification

There are three levels of USDA organic certification:

100 % Organic

To be considered "100% Organic" — the highest grade — raw or processed products must contain ingredients that are certified organic, along with any processing aids used. The USDA requires the finished products to identify the certifying agent on the label’s information panel, along with the USDA’s organic seal, or the 100 percent organic claim. Typically, organic ingredients are also identified on the label, or with an asterisk or similar mark.


To carry the “Organic” seal or claim, raw or processed products must identify all organic ingredients on the label. These products may contain up to 5 percent combined non-organic ingredients under USDA rules, excluding salt and water, as long as all agricultural ingredients are certified organic, except as allowed on the National List.

Made with Organic

Processed products containing at least 70 percent certified organic ingredients may claim the “made with organic” label as long as any remaining agricultural ingredients are not required by the USDA to be organically produced, and the products meet organic growing or manufacturing practices.

Health Claims

Organic foodies say that agriculture grown without added chemicals just tastes better than non-organics, but are they really better for our health?

Some research clearly supports the organic health claims, but results are mixed.

One 2002 study by the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences found that children who eat organic fruit and juices are exposed to “significantly lower” levels of organophosphorus pesticides than those who eat conventional foods.

Numerous studies have shown that children exposed to low levels of OPs develop neurological dysfunction, and long-term exposure can experience adverse reproductive harm, blood cancers and Parkinson’s disease.

Other studies, such as one published in the Journal of Agricultural and Food Chemistry, a peer-reviewed journal of the American Chemical Society, found organically grown strawberries, corn and marionberries contain “significantly higher levels of cancer-fighting antioxidants than conventionally grown foods.”

However, the USDA doesn’t officially that claim organic food is safer and more nutritious than conventionally produced food,” according to a report issued by the Food Marketing Institute. The FMI is a national organization headquartered in Arlington, Virginia, representing grocery wholesalers and retail supermarkets.

Critics say that in some cases, organic food may be less safe than conventionally produced food, because they lack preservatives and are not irradiated, making them more vulnerable to bacteria and insects that cause foodborne illnesses.

In the short run, organic farming isn’t the most efficient system. It’s slower, harder, more complex and labor-intensive than conventional practices, so eating organic is generally more expensive. But it doesn’t have to be.

Organic enthusiasts say buying locally grown products from farmers markets or community-supported agriculture delivery services, usually called a CSA, or purchasing in bulk from membership stores like Costco, or growing it yourself can go a long way in stretching your food budget.

Some store brands also offer organic canned foods at a bargain. Just be sure to read the label so you know what you are getting.


USDA National Organic Program. Accessed 22 April 2015.

USDA Organic Labeling Fact Sheet. Oct. 2012. Accessed online 22 April 2015.

FDA Food Facts. Why Irradiation? Accessed 22 April 2015.

Food Marketing Institute. Natural and Organic Foods. Undated Report to FDA. Accessed 22 April 2015 online (pdf format).

Organic Trade Association Market Analysis. 2014. Accessed 22 April 2015.

Organically Grown Foods Higher in Cancer-Fighting Chemicals than Conventionally Grown Foods. American Chemical Society Press Release, 4 Mar 2003 accessed Science Daily 22 April 2015.

National List of Allowed and Prohibited Substances. Jennifer Chait. About Money. Accessed 22 April 22, 2015.

Reviewed April 23, 2015
by Michele Blacksberg RN
Edited by Jody Smith

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We value and respect our HERWriters' experiences, but everyone is different. Many of our writers are speaking from personal experience, and what's worked for them may not work for you. Their articles are not a substitute for medical advice, although we hope you can gain knowledge from their insight.

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