Defining Organic- Don’t Be Fooled By Tricky Marketing

Jul 25, 2011

Have you ever picked up a food product that had a giant ORGANIC stamped on the front, only to turn it over and discover that the ingredient list is anything but?  Navigating the sea of organic labeling can be so confusing that a lot of people abandon their efforts to eat organically, some even chalking up the whole organic movement to a scam.

The thing is, those people are on to something.  I’m a huge advocate of eating organic and supporting organic farming, but if I didn’t know what I do about labeling, I’d most likely be a skeptic, too.  But real organic food IS out there!  There are several things you need to know about how organic food is labeled, and the legal definition of words that are used on food products, in order to ensure that what you’re buying is, indeed, organic. 

Once you know the tricks of the trade, shopping for organic food is a breeze. 

USDA Labeling

The most obvious way to tell if a food item is truly organic is to look for the USDA Organic label.  Luckily the United States has a rigorous qualification system that regulates what can be labeled with the word “organic”, and the USDA Organic label is what shows that the product is conforming to those strict regulations. 

For one-ingredient items, like produce, the identifying sign may use the word “Organic”, and each individual item can bear the USDA Organic seal, usually in the form of a sticker.     

For items that contain more than one ingredient, like a box of cereal, there are three categories where the USDA allows for the word “organic” to be used in labeling.

1) 100% Organic: Foods with this label are made with 100% organic ingredients and may display the USDA seal. Salt and water are not included.  These products may display the USDA Organic seal.   

2) Organic: These products contain at least 95 – 99% organic ingredients (by weight). The remaining ingredients are not available organically but have been approved by the National Organics Program.

3) Made with Organic Ingredients: Food with this label must contain 70 – 94% organic ingredients. These products are not allowed to use the USDA Organic seal; instead, they may list up to three organic ingredients on the front of the packaging.  

Any food item made with less than 70% organic ingredients can only use the word organic in their ingredients list.  These products will not bear the USDA Organic seal. 
It’s All In The Wording

Since use of the USDA Organic seal is voluntary, you don’t have to look far to find companies that try to trick consumers with misleading packaging. 

1) Company Name: There are no rules regarding what words a company can use in their name, so it’s important to watch out for companies using the word “Organic” or “Organics” in their name, which they display on their product in a way that misleads consumers into thinking that the product is organic when it is not.  If you see the word “organic” on the front label and it’s not obvious if it’s a part of the name, do a quick check of the nutritional panel to see if the ingredients are organic.  If not, it’s simply a naming ploy.

2) Natural: The terms “natural” and “all natural” have absolutely no meaning in the United States from a legal standpoint, as the USDA has no rules when it comes to using “natural” on food packaging.  Companies take advantage of this, hoping that unsuspecting consumers will think their product is organic and not look at the ingredients list. 

Another way that “natural” is used to fool consumers is by disguising ingredients that have fallen out of favor, such as MSG, which is now called “natural flavoring.” 

What shopping for organics comes down to is looking for the USDA Organic seal, checking the ingredients list and shopping for your food at places that you trust.  My favorite place to get organic food is at the Farmers Market, but I also love to shop at natural food grocery stores.  Not only are they more likely to carry truly organic food items, the staff is usually quite knowledgeable about organics and can answer your questions and offer alternatives.

Also keep in mind that the USDA Organic certification process is an expensive one, and many farmers abide by the rules but simply can’t afford to get certified.  You can find these growers at Farmers Markets by their “No Pesticides, No Sprays” signs, or by asking, and once familiar with their names, you might start to notice them in your local stores.

With a little bit of effort and knowledge, you can find the organic food that you’re looking for.

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How To Eat Organically For Less

May 30, 2011

When my neighbor brought me a basket of tomatoes from her garden last year, I had no idea it was going to change my life.

The basket was full of dark purple tomatoes with yellow streaks. Gorgeous. And, as I was to find out, delicious. So delicious, in fact, that I went right back over to my neighbor’s house and asked her what the heck kind of tomatoes she’d given me, because I’d never tasted anything so good in my life.

Her response, that they were heirloom tomatoes, sent me on a quest to rediscover food the way it was meant to be; free from pesticides and the act of modifying a crop for perfect size, shape, color and durability (which often sacrifices taste and nutrition).

Making the commitment to feed my family as organically as possible was a costly one in the beginning. I quickly learned how to cut costs, though, so that I wasn’t paying an arm and a leg to feed my family healthy, nutritious and flavorful food. And you can, too!

Here are some tips that can help bring down the cost of eating organically.

Eat With the Seasons

Ever notice how grapes are three times the cost during the winter than they are in the summer? Foods that are in season are cheaper! They are more abundant, and often don’t have to be shipped as far, cutting down on fuel costs.

Something to note is that the organic season can be slightly different from the non-organic season, so even though an item may be in abundant supply on the shelf, you may need to wait a bit longer for the organic version to appear.

Join A CSA

A CSA (Community Supported Agriculture) program offers organic produce from a local source on a regular basis. You are basically cutting out the middle man, so overall costs are quite a bit lower than buying the same produce at the store. The variety is often large, and can sometimes even include meat, eggs and dairy.

When we belonged to a CSA, we got a large box every other week, and for $80/month it was more than enough to feed our family of three adults and one child. We also got things in our box that we’d never eaten before, and it was fun to learn to cook new things.

Buy Food at Farmer’s Markets

Farmer’s Markets also cut out the middle man and offer organic produce at huge savings! If you wait until the end of the market, many vendors are willing to sell their items at an even lower cost, and the more you buy of something, the more likely you are to get a better deal. Don’t be afraid to negotiate!

If you need to go during regular hours, you can also seek out vendors that are organic in practice, but just can’t afford the very expensive process of becoming organic certified. I was amazed at how many vendors practiced organic farming but couldn’t display the logo. Prices here tend to be a bit lower as the farmer doesn’t have to pass down certification costs to the buyer.

Buy Unprepared Food

You pay quite a bit more to have someone else cut your onions, carrots and celery into tiny pieces and call it Mirpoix. Buy your produce whole and dirty, and wash and cut it yourself to save some money.

Purchase at Food Warehouses

Buying certain items in bulk can save a bundle! While the Costcos in my area don’t sell fresh organic produce, they do sell large bags of organic fruits and vegetables in the frozen section. One large bag of organic green beans will last my family through three meals, coming out to a per meal cost of about $2.

Use Coupons

Coupons for organic items are few and far between, but they ARE out there. A Google search will bring up several sites that deal exclusively with organic, green and healthy living couponing and sales. When these sites don’t give you exactly what you need, writing to a company and telling them how much you like their product and would appreciate some coupons often gets great results.

Grow a Garden

Growing your own garden is the cheapest way to eat organically! Not only are seeds inexpensive, you have no doubt about how your food has been grown. Many nurseries are now carrying organic plants as well, if you prefer to start a bit ahead of the game.

Eat Less

While it may sound crazy, the more nutritious the food you put into your body, the less your body needs! Your body will naturally adjust its hunger signals based on the nutrients it’s receiving. Even if you spend more on organic food, you will spend less in the long term.

I do spend more on produce than I used to, but my monthly food budget hasn’t changed. By buying less processed food, and using the tips above, I’ve been able to break even. You don’t have to spend a fortune in order to eat healthy and support local and organically sourced food.


How To Plant an Organic Garden
Simply Organic In-Store Coupons
How Is Organic Farming Different?
Top 12 Fruits and Vegetables You Should Buy Organic

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