Decoding Organic Foods: Understanding Labels and Definitions

Here at Nature’s pHarmacy®, we always recommend choosing organic (or biodynamic) foods. Navigating the landscape of organic foods can be daunting. Terms like “organic” and “natural” are often used interchangeably in the marketplace, may not always carry the same meaning, and often leave certain details out. This article attempts to clarify terms and provide understanding to help you make informed decisions on what to purchase and consume.

What “Organic” Means

At its core, organic agriculture embodies a holistic approach to farming that prioritizes soil health, biodiversity, and ecological harmony. Organic farmers eschew synthetic pesticides, herbicides, and fertilizers in favor of natural alternatives such as compost, crop rotation, and integrated pest management. This emphasis on sustainable practices not only minimizes environmental degradation but also promotes long-term soil fertility and resilience.

Research has shown that organic farming practices can lead to numerous benefits, including reduced pesticide residues in food, enhanced soil quality, and increased biodiversity. A meta-analysis published in the journal Frontiers in Sustainable Food Systems found that organic farming methods resulted in higher soil organic carbon levels and greater microbial diversity compared to conventional farming systems.

Furthermore, organic agriculture has been linked to improved nutritional quality. A comprehensive review published in the British Journal of Nutrition found that organic crops tend to have higher levels of certain nutrients, including antioxidants and polyphenols, compared to conventionally grown crops. Additionally, organic dairy and meat products have been shown to contain higher levels of beneficial omega-3 fatty acids and lower levels of unhealthy saturated fats.

In the United States, the USDA (United States Department of Agriculture) regulates organic food production through a rigorous certification process. Products labeled as “organic” must meet standards, which include requirements for soil quality, pest and weed management, and the use of organic inputs. Note that the “Strengthening Organic Enforcement USDA Rule” went into effect this week on March 19th. It is intended to minimize fraud and safeguard confidence in organic products throughout the entire supply chain, by improving audit trails, traceability, and more.

Here are some terms you might see on labels at the grocery store:

100% organic: According to the USDA, products labeled as “100% organic” must contain only organically produced ingredients and processing aids, excluding water and salt. These products bear the USDA organic seal and signify the highest level of organic certification, guaranteeing consumers that every ingredient used in the product is certified organic.

Organic: Products labeled simply as “organic” must contain at least 95% organic ingredients, excluding water and salt. These products also bear the USDA organic seal and provide consumers with confidence that the majority of ingredients used in the product are organic.

Made with Organic Ingredients: Products labeled as “made with organic ingredients” contain at least 70% organic ingredients, excluding water and salt. While these products may not bear the USDA organic seal, they must still adhere to organic standards and undergo certification by a USDA-accredited certifying agent. However, it’s important for consumers to note that products labeled as “made with organic ingredients” may also contain non-organic harmful ingredients, so it’s essential to review the ingredient list for clarity on the organic content of the product.

Regenerative Organic Certified®: This is not a USDA certification. “Regenerative organic agriculture is a collection of practices that focus on regenerating soil health and the full farm ecosystem.” The Regenerative Organic Alliance developed a certification program that uses the USDA organic certification as the starting point, and builds upon it with benchmarks and standards for soil and land management, animal welfare, and farmer and worker fairness. Biodynamic farming is one subset of regenerative organic farming, that also incorporates biological diversity, soil fertility, gentle pest control, and water conservation. Demeter certified is the highest quality certification and is only allowed on biodynamic foods and beverages.

PLU Sticker Numbers: The International Federation of Produce Standards (IFPS) is responsible for setting international standards for the fresh produce industry. At the grocery store, you may notice a 4 or 5-digit number on a sticker or tag on your fruit or vegetables. Any code starting with a “3” or “4,” indicates that the produce is conventionally grown. A five-digit code starting with a “9” is given to produce that is raised organically without any chemical treatment. And an “8” at the beginning of a code number indicates genetically modified (GMO) produce (but this latter designation is voluntary in North America). When you pick up those apples or berries, be sure to choose those starting with a “9” to ensure you are avoiding pesticide residue, and always wash your produce before consuming!

We have seen how USDA and IFPS help us to recognize those foods produced using organic standards. What is the role of the FDA in all of this?

FDA Guidance

While the USDA oversees organic certification in the United States, the FDA plays a complementary role in ensuring compliance with federal standards. The FDA regulates most foods and food ingredients (except for meat, poultry, catfish, and some processed egg products that fall under USDA oversight).

The FDA’s regulatory authority encompasses broader aspects of food safety, ingredient transparency, and labeling practices. For instance, the FDA regulates the use of natural flavorings and additives in food products, requiring manufacturers to disclose certain ingredients on product labels. Europe is far ahead of America in excluding and banning harmful additives.

An interesting conversation at FDA has involved the use of the term “natural.” As of now, the only regulation per se is that a product is considered “natural” if “nothing artificial or synthetic (including colors regardless of source) is included in, or has been added to, the product that would not normally be expected to be there.” As of now, if something is GMO, it can still be considered “natural.” The term also does not address processing or manufacturing methods. There have been multiply lobby efforts through the years from various groups, suggesting that FDA more closely define the term, disallow the use of the term at all, allow GMO foods to be considered natural, NOT allow GMO foods to be considered natural and so on. With these various competing voices in play, FDA has not updated its definition or formalized interpretation of its meaning.

Studies have shown that consumers’ assumptions about what “natural” means vary significantly from what the term actually means. One survey found that 33% of Americans purchase items with “natural” on the label, assuming they are more “healthy” than other products. A petition to FDA from the Consumer’s Union suggested that nearly 66% of consumers are misled by the term and that nearly 90% assume that it means more than it does, with significant numbers thinking it means either that no pesticides were used, no chemicals were used during processing, and/or no GMOs were used. We recommend that you approach anything with a “natural” label with caution, as the term is more a marketing term than anything else.

Moreover, products labeled with “natural flavors” may contain synthetic additives or flavoring agents that deviate from consumers’ expectations of “naturalness.” Research suggests that the use of natural flavorings in food products has surged in recent years, raising questions about transparency and consumer trust.

As advocates for health, sustainability, and ethical food production, consumers play a pivotal role in shaping the future of our food system. By prioritizing organic products, supporting organic farmers and producers, and demanding greater transparency and accountability in food labeling, consumers can contribute to a more equitable, resilient, and sustainable food future for generations to come.

At the end of the day, here at Nature’s Alkaline Way and Nature’s pHarmacy®, we always recommend avoiding ultra processed and packaged foods and choosing whole foods, organically or biodynamically grown. Check out our blog on heirloom heritage plants to learn more about growing and choosing healthier produce. And be sure to read labels carefully when at the grocery store or Farmers’ Market.

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