Understanding Organic Food Labels
I get many questions about this topic. How do I know if I’m buying organic food? How do I know if it’s safe to buy? What does “All Natural” mean? Well, this is my goal today, to help you find and buy organic food easily and give you some tips for what to watch out for.
I’ll start with what to watch out for. You need to ALWAYS be wary of the word “Natural” on a product especially if it’s a processed food product (packaged). All I can say is to ignore it. Unlike the term “Organic” which is highly regulated, the term “Natural” only means that the product doesn’t contain artificial colors and flavors. There can still be plenty of unnatural ingredients in products simply labeled “Natural”. Read more HERE.
How to read organic labels
Even today I run into people who don’t understand the importance of organic food or why they need to buy them. Honestly, buying organic food and especially organic whole foods have never been so important. There are many reasons to buy organic; here are the big ones:
- No toxic pesticides
- Support local farmers and preserves family farms
- No GMO’s (Genetically Modified Organisms)
- High nutritional value
- Very few cases of food poisoning have ever been linked to organic foods or farm processor
- Humane treatment of animals and animals cannot be fed slaughterhouse waste
- Organic Farming prohibits use of sewage sludge
- Organic certification prohibits irradiation
How to read labels to find organic food
How do I know if fresh produce is organic?
If you are trying to find organic produce, what you need to look at is the PLU code. If it has 5 numbers starting with a 9, that is organic. This also might be accompanied with or without the USDA Organic Label sticker. Conventional produce will have 4 numbers usually starting with a 4 or a 3.
What about packaged items?
These are what you might see on packaged items:
- “100% Organic”: If you see this on a package then all the ingredients in that package are organic and it may have the USDA organic seal on it.
- “Organic”: When a package is labeled organic then it means that the ingredients in that package are at least 95-99% organic. The product may also bear the USDA organic seal on the package.
- “Made with Organic Ingredients”: What this means is that the ingredients must contain 70-94% organic ingredients. It will NOT have the USDA organic seal on it. Instead the package may list a certifying agency like QAI, CCOF or one of many independent organic certifying agencies. The ingredients list will identify which ingredients are organic.
- If the product is below 70% organic it will not have the USDA organic seal and it might only list organic ingredients in the nutritional information panel.
Even if a producer is certified organic, the use of the USDA organic label is voluntary. Some brands have higher standards than USDA and have chosen not to use their certification; Eden Foods is a good example of this.
Many people ask about the remainder of the ingredients in a 95% organic or 70% organic product. Those remaining ingredients still have to meet a strict set of standards – they cannot contain GMO’s and they cannot contain artificial ingredients. Oftentimes in a USDA organic product, the only things that aren’t organic are salts and those can’t be considered organic because they are minerals.
Also, not every food producer wants to go through the rigorous process of becoming certified. This is especially true of small farm operations who cannot afford to go through the process. So when shopping at a farmers’ market, don’t be scared to ask how they grow their food. Also, if you are shopping at a grocery store and in the produce section you see “Farmed Locally”, many times it is organic and a much better choice than conventional. If you are concerned just find someone to ask!
I hope this helps your shopping a little easier when trying to make sense of the organic food labels. Do you have any tips of your own that I missed? Leave them in the comments!