Quantcast

Organic Labeling: What You Need to Know

Emma Loewe is a senior at Duke University where she studies Environmental Science, English and Visual Media. She loves being outside, taking pictures and finding creative ways to write about sustainability.

It’s 2 p.m. in Whole Foods. Organic D’anjou pears from Washington beckon you into the produce section where a variable bounty awaits. Organic white onions sit unblemished despite their recent journey from the California croplands, whole trade Mexican bell peppers bask in their vibrant hues and hefty slices of New York strip steak gather around a “no cages, no crates, no crowding” label.

An array of organic fruits at Whole Foods. Photo credit: Emma Loewe

But what does it all mean?

More people are opting to go green than ever before and grocery stores are shifting to meet demand. Nearly three-quarters of U.S. supermarkets are now stocked with organic products. With humble beginnings rooted in the environmental movement of the 1970s, the organic market has expanded to conjure images of green pastures and smiling cows in the minds of shoppers nationwide. However, this imagined ideal does not always pan out.

The organic market is policed by the National Organic Standards Board (NOSB), an advisory committee composed of farmers, conservationists, consumer reps, processors, scientists and retailers. While some of the 15 constituent members are small-scale organic farmers by trade, others represent more industrialized interests. Carmela Beck, a NOSB farmer, is a program manager at Discolls. Tom Chapman, a handler, earns his living sourcing ingredients for Clif Bar. These members illustrate the notion that the organic market, like the conventional agriculture market, is ultimately a business. It has increased its supply in order to meet the demand of a booming market—taking on some characteristics more inherent to large-scale farming in the process.

Every five years, the NOSB revisits its list of synthetic substances that may be used in organic production and handling. These ingredients often serve to increase shelf life or product yield. The current list includes some chemical compounds—your ethanols, isporopanols and sodium hyplochlorates, in addition to some more baffling additives—liquid fish products and humic acids to name a few. I set out to Whole Foods (the very chain where, coincidentally, a previous NOSB member works as a quality standards coordinator) to look a little closer at its labels.

Over the course of my search, I came across organic trail mix that featured Silicon Dioxide, Cirtric Acids and Maltodextrin. Try saying that five times fast. The canned goods aisle brought me to organic soup made up of sodium citrate and a dash of “cheese flavor” for good measure. The organic cereal I picked up was made with vegetable glycerin—a common additive in cosmetics and soaps because of its cooling effect on the skin. Green pastures and smiling cows be dammed.

The labels on these organic products are often as varied as their ingredient lists. The label that carries the most weight as far as organics go is the one that reads “USDA Certified 100% Organic.” Foods that bear this label are made up of only organic ingredients and those synthetics that the standards board deems safe. The next step down is the “Certified Organic” label, which requires that at least 95 percent of a product’s ingredients are organic. This is followed by the “Made with Organic Ingredients” seal, which says that at least 70 percent of a food’s components are organic. Pair these markers with the 19 other third-party organic labels that exist outside of the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) system and you end up with grocery shelves overflowing with sustainable claims. Many of the packages I saw in Whole Foods also advertised “all natural,” “premium quality” and “sustainably sourced” ingredients next to their various organic seals. Though the USDA has a regulatory team to monitor national product packaging, its scope is limited and most of these promises go unchecked and unsubstantiated.

You don’t need to look beyond your local grocery’s shelves to realize that the organic food market is defined in its complexities.

YOU MIGHT ALSO LIKE

4 Steps to Detoxify Your Kitchen

Baby Carrots: A Great Way to Get Kids to Snack on Veggies, But Are They Safe?

Spirulina: One of World’s Healthiest Superfoods

Sponsored
Pixabay

By John R. Platt

The world needs to change the way it eats, not just as individuals but as a society.

Read More Show Less
Rimma_Bondarenko / iStock / Getty Images

By Tiffany La Forge

We've all been there — feeling like there's just some pep missing in our step. Thankfully, there's a natural (and tasty!) solution in your pantry.

Read More Show Less
Sponsored
On thin ice. Christopher Michel / Flickr / CC BY 2.0

The Russian military is taking measures to protect the residents of a remote Arctic settlement from a mass of polar bears, German press agency DPA reported.

The move comes after regional authorities declared a state of emergency over the weekend after sightings of more than 50 bears in the town of Belushya Guba since December.

Read More Show Less

This year's letter from Bill and Melinda Gates focused on nine things that surprised them. For the Microsoft-cofounder, one thing he was surprised to learn was the massive amount of new buildings the planet should expect in the coming decades due to urban population growth.

"The number of buildings in the world is going to double by 2060. It's like we're going to build a new New York City every month for the next 40 years," he said.

Read More Show Less

Over the past few years, it seems vegan cooking has gone from 'brown rice and tofu' to a true art form. These amazing cooks show off the creations on Instagram—and we can't get enough.

Read More Show Less