By Elizabeth Smith

Organic and all its variations are labels that are exploding on our grocery store shelves these days. But what exactly do they all mean? I am often asked this question by people looking to educate themselves on the foods they eat so here’s a rundown for the savvy consumer.

‘100% Organic’ means 100% organic ingredients and may display the USDA Organic seal.
‘Organic’ means at least 95-99% organic ingredients and may display the USDA Organic seal.
‘Made with Organic Ingredients’ must contain 70-94% organic ingredients but are not allowed to bear the USDA Organic seal.

100% Organic is synonymous with ‘USDA Organic’ and this label means the grower is certified, regulated, and inspected by our government under a program called the Natural Organic Program (NOP). Food can only legally be labeled ‘Organic’ if it is independently certified as meeting the USDA’s high standards. Ironically, the healthiest foods available to us, Certified Organic, are the most heavily regulated foods in production here in the US. The label ‘100% Organic’ guarantees no genetically modified organisms (GMO’s), toxic inputs, synthetic pesticides, synthetic herbicides or chemical fertilizers are used in growing produce and that no antibiotics or growth hormones are given to animals with this label.

‘Natural’ when it comes to produce or manufactured foods is just a meaningless marketing term according to Consumer Reports. They state that ‘Natural’ is one of “the most misleading labels” out there. Studies have shown that consumers believe that ‘Natural’ means the ingredients or produce do not contain GMO’s, were not grown with pesticides or contain artificial ingredients. Consumer Reports found that 86% of consumers polled believed that a ‘Natural’ label on food should mean those things. Surprisingly, some consumers polled even believed that ‘Natural’ is the same as ‘Organic’. But none of this is the case in reality. There is no legal definition of ‘Natural’ when it comes to produce and manufactured food so therefore this term is completely unregulated.

Organix, Nearly Organic, Organics, Natural Organix, etc:
Terms like ‘Natural Organic’, ‘Organics’ (note the “S”), ‘Nearly Organic’, ‘Organix’, ‘Natural Organix’, ‘100% Natural’, ‘All Natural’ and ‘Natural’ are simply company marketing terms at this time. Branding products with these words gives the impression of healthy without having any real definition of what that means. And sadly, manufacturers charge more for this “Healthy Halo” effect on consumers. If you would like to learn more about this marketing trend, watch the entertaining documentary “Holy Chicken” by Morgan Spurlock. Here’s an example of how ‘Natural’ is so misleading: arsenic is found in nature so it could be coined completely ‘100% Natural’ but of course we 100% do not want it in our food or products.

What can we do? Carefully read food labels, buy from local sources whenever possible and ask your grocery store to carry more certified organic products.

Elizabeth Warburton-Smith is the founder of the Rita Ranch Community Garden inspiring others to grow organic food. Elizabeth and her husband Gregory recently opened RitaRitos, a food business selling healthy and delicious wraps highlighting organic and local ingredients.
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