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Organic: Frequently Asked Questions About the Term

As I ride around the rural roads of the greater Minneapolis/St. Paul area, I love looking at mile after mile after mile of corn and other crops. I suspect that a lot of the crops I’m looking at are organic, and being that September is Organic Harvest Month, I thought I’d visit the topic and answer some questions that people often have about the term “organic.”

Organic:  Frequently Asked Questions About the Term

Organic foods have been long promoted as the best choice when buying groceries. The USDA program for labeling organically produced foods began in 2001. In 2016, there were more than 31,000 certified organic commercial farmers in the nation, and in more than 100 countries. Organics is one of the fastest-growing industries in the world — sales have risen over 20 percent each year. The industry is worth $43 billion today.

However, what does the term mean? In a scientific sense, all life is organic. But that’s not what we’re talking about in reference to produce, meat, and other foods you can purchase at the grocery store. The term has a legal definition, as well.

What does “organic” mean?

The term, when you see it on a label, simply means produce grown naturally, without the help of any synthetic or chemical pesticides, fertilizers, sewage sludge, etc. Meat-producing animals (chicken, pigs, cows, etc.) were raised without being given hormones, antibiotics or was given only organic products to eat (no animal by-products). Animals also need access to the outdoors whether or not they use it.

What are the USDA guidelines?

The United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) National Organic Program (NOP) has developed a very wordy definition, as well as guidelines, for organic producers and farmers to follow in order to attain and keep their license. Here are the guidelines in a nut shell:

  • They are not permitted to use any materials for three years before being granted their certification and while maintaining it.
  • They must allow their livestock a way to get outside, ensuring animals can roam freely.
  • They cannot feed them food with hormones or give them antibiotics.
  • Animals must be fed with 100 percent organic feed.
  • Processed products must not have been contaminated, and operation records must be kept.
  • They must not use any Genetically Modified Organisms (GMOs).
  • They must keep non-organic and organic foods separate.
  • They must not use any kind of irradiation to kill pests.
  • They must use compost or manure rather than synthetic fertilizers.
  • They must undergo annual inspections to make sure they are following the guidelines.

NOP is booth the federal regulatory framework in the U.S. governing organic food and the name of the USDA Agricultural Marketing Service (AMS) program responsible for administering and enforcing the regulatory framework. The goal of NOP is to ensure the product is protected from beginning to end, as well as addressing other concerns, such as water and soil quality, food additives, livestock practices, and pest control. When NOP is followed, we get improved animal health and preservation of the resources that lead to biodiversity.

How do you know what is and is not organic?

Your first indication can be found on the label. The U.S. Department of Agriculture has some strict rules as to what is and is not considered organic. For the label to be placed on produce, it must be grown by USDA standards. Any person making a false claim on the label could be fined up to $11,000 for misrepresentation.

How are multi-ingredient foods classified?

Some products use multiple ingredients. If the label claims that the product is organic and uses the USDA seal, then the USDA requires that the product be made from at least 95 percent organic ingredients. Products with a certifying agent but no USDA seal must be made from at least 70 percent organic ingredients and must state the following, “made with organic ingredients.”

What do the different categories mean?

When you’re doing your grocery shopping, you’ll find three distinct categories the USDA has allowed manufacturers to label their products:

  • 100% Organic: This means all ingredients are 100 percent organically produced.
  • Organic: This means at least 95 percent of the ingredients are organic.
  • Made with Organic Ingredients: This means that 70 percent of a product is made up of organically produced ingredients with stringent restrictions on the other 30 percent.

Products that contain less than 70 percent organic ingredients cannot claim to be organic, however, they can list them in the ingredients panel. You can learn more about this by visiting Organic.org.

What are the benefits of organic foods?

There are not many long-term studies looking at the health benefits that come from eating or using organics. However, a recent University of California Davis study did find that organically grown foods had more nutritional value in them than foods that are not. According to some people (including myself), they also taste much better.

On the other hand, organically grown foods contain no pesticides or fertilizers, which means your body is not subjected to the dangerous effects these products can have on it. Pesticides and fertilizers can damage the body’s immune, nervous, and endocrine systems. And, for children, the effects are even more harmful.

And then there is the environment. When you grow food organically, it means you’re not using pesticides or fertilizers that could pollute the land, sea, or air. You also conserve soil, water, and air and ensure that more carbon dioxide is recycled without letting any toxic gases get back into the atmosphere.

There you have it! The most common questions about the term organic. If you have other questions, please put them in a comment below and I’ll do my best to answer them.

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About the author

Carma Spence has been experimenting in the kitchen since she was four years old and loves trying out new recipe ideas. She is the author of Bonkers for Bundt Cakes and Your Perfect Pie, as well as author and contributor to several more non-food-related books. With Carma's Cookery, she is taking her passion for empowering people and blending it with her passion for cooking, gift-giving and entertaining.

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