Quantcast

Organic Labeling: What You Need to Know

Food

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

EcoWatch Daily Newsletter

Waterloo Bridge during the Extinction Rebellion protest in London. Martin Hearn / Flickr / CC BY 2.0

Money talks. And today it had something to say about the impending global climate crisis.

Read More Show Less
Sam Cooper

By Sam Cooper

Thomas Edison once said, "I'd put my money on the sun and solar energy. What a source of power!"

Read More Show Less
Sponsored

Zero Waste Kitchen Essentials

Simple swaps that cut down on kitchen trash.

Sponsored

By Kayla Robbins

Along with the bathroom, the kitchen is one of the most daunting areas to try and make zero waste.

Read More Show Less
A NOAA research vessel at a Taylor Energy production site in the Gulf of Mexico in September 2018. NOAA

The federal government is looking into the details from the longest running oil spill in U.S. history, and it's looking far worse than the oil rig owner let on, as The New York Times reported.

Read More Show Less
Golde Wallingford submitted this photo of "Pure Joy" to EcoWatch's first photo contest. Golde Wallingford

EcoWatch is pleased to announce our third photo contest!

Read More Show Less
Sponsored
Damage at the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge from the 2016 occupation. USFWS

By Tara Lohan

When armed militants with a grudge against the federal government seized the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge in rural Oregon back in the winter of 2016, I remember avoiding the news coverage. Part of me wanted to know what was happening, but each report I read — as the occupation stretched from days to weeks and the destruction grew — made me so angry it was hard to keep reading.

Read More Show Less
Computer model projection of temperature anomalies across Europe on June 27. Temperature scale in °C. Tropicaltidbits.com

A searing heat wave has begun to spread across Europe, with Germany, France and Belgium experiencing extreme temperatures that are set to continue in the coming days.

Read More Show Less
Skull morphology of hybrid "narluga" whale. Nature / Mikkel Høegh Post

In the 1980s, a Greenlandic subsistence hunter shot and killed a whale with bizarre features unlike any he had ever seen before. He knew something was unique about it, so he left its abnormally large skull on top of his toolshed where it rested until a visiting professor happened upon it a few years later.

Read More Show Less