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Defining Organic Food

Within the past decade or so, the emphasis on our health and the environment in which we live has increased tremendously. This shift in our world view is absolutely necessary and a welcome change to many – including myself-, yet it can be confusing. We are constantly exposed to terms like all-natural and organic, but do we really know what they mean?

The United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) has worked diligently to increase awareness of what “organic” is and how organic food can be upheld. The National Organic Program (NOP) specifically deals with this matter under the USDA’s Agricultural Marketing Service.

The NOP defines organic as “a labeling term that indicates that the food or other agricultural product has been produced through approved methods that integrate cultural, biological, and mechanical practices that foster recycling of resources, promote ecological balance, and conserve biodiversity. Synthetic fertilizers, sewage sludge, irradiation, and genetic engineering may not be used.”

Simple enough, right?

Okay, maybe not… In short, the term ‘organic’ loosely represents the avoidance of man-made alterations. It is simply natural and conducive to preserving the environment, just the way it has always been, and arguably the way it always should be. No radiation. No pesticides. No harmful chemicals. However, when we wind up in the grocery aisle with tons of marketing phrases leaping out at us, it can cause a lot of confusion. From organic to all-natural to 100% organic, it’s extremely overwhelming to figure out what means what.

Thankfully, in 2000, the USDA established their rulings on the use of the term “organic” on food labels. A company claiming their product classifies in one of the below categories is subject to approval by a certified third party accredited by the USDA.

“100% Organic” – Products deemed 100% organic must contain exactly that, only organic ingredients. This product is allowed to display the USDA Organic Seal.

“Organic” - Products labeled as organic must contain at least 95% organic materials. This title may also display the USDA Organic Seal.

“Made with Organic Ingredients” - This title is given to products that contain between 70-95% organic ingredients.

Anything less than 70% may not be called organic. If falsified, a producer could face a lawsuit as well as a large fine.

For more information on how to decipher what “organic” means, visit the USDA.

For even more on organic foods – from what foods to invest in and what organic foods you can skip – read Buying Organic 101.


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