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Organic and Other Environmentally Friendly Foods

You've probably noticed the increased quantity and variety of organic foods available in regular grocery stores. Once the specialty of health food stores, organic foods are spreading to shelves throughout major food stores.

So you may be wondering if organic foods are healthier and safer — and worth the extra money they might cost. How do they taste? And what do labels touting foods as "sustainable," "natural," "free-range," "grass-fed," or "fair trade" mean?

Defining "Organic"

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If a food is labeled "organic," that means it meets the organic standards set by the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA). An organic food is grown without:

  • pesticides
  • fertilizers made with synthetic ingredients or sewage sludge
  • herbicides
  • antibiotics
  • bioengineering
  • hormones
  • ionizing radiation

Organic animal products — meat, poultry, eggs, and dairy foods — come from animals that are fed 100% organic feed products, receive no antibiotics or growth hormones, and have access to the outdoors.

If a product is labeled "organic," it means that a government-approved certifier has inspected the farm where it was produced to ensure that the growers followed all the rules necessary to meet the USDA's organic standards. Farmers who produce organic foods use renewable resources that conserve the soil and water for future generations. And any company that handled or processed that food on its way to the grocery store must be certified organic, too.

Foods labeled "organic" can be either:

  • 100% organic: They're completely organic or made of all organic ingredients.
  • Organic: They're at least 95% organic.

"Made with organic ingredients" on a label means the food contains at least 70% organic ingredients, but can't have the "organic" seal on its packaging.

Sustainable Foods

Another term you might hear in conjunction with organic and natural foods is "sustainable." This term means that foods have been grown locally by sustainable agricultural methods — that is, using food-growing techniques that don't harm the environment, are seasonal, and preserve agricultural land. Sustainable practices also are humane to animals, pay growers fairly, and support local farming communities by distributing their food through farmer's markets and other venues.

Again, "sustainable" and "organic" don't always mean the same thing. An organic tomato you buy, for example, might not adhere to sustainable principles if it was grown organically but shipped across the country to your market. And some produce you find at your local stand might not have been grown organically.

There's a growing trend among health-conscious consumers to buy food that is both sustainable and organic whenever possible.

You Might Also See:

  • Bird Friendly or Shade Grown: Coffee bearing this label was grown under trees that provide shade for the coffee and a habitat for migratory birds. Coffee grown out in the open under the hot sun is cheaper but requires more pesticides and chemical fertilizers to grow.
  • Cage-Free or Free Range: Seen on eggs or poultry products, these terms can be misleading or unreliable. "Cage-free" implies that birds were not housed in cages, but is not a guarantee that they had access to the outdoors — or even are able to roam freely — and the "cage-free" label isn't verified by any third party. For their eggs to be considered "free range," producers must demonstrate that poultry has been allowed open-air access. The USDA has no requirements as to the amount of time spent outdoors, nor the size or quality of the outside range.
  • Grass-Fed/Open Pasture: "Grass-fed" on a label signifies that the livestock received a diet of natural forage outdoors, but sometimes cows are fed grass while indoors or in a pen or only for the first few months of their lives. So "grass-fed" can — but doesn't always — mean "pasture-raised" or "open pasture." Pasture-raised animals roam freely outdoors where they can eat the grasses and other plants that their bodies are best suited to digest.
  • Fair Trade Certified: If you see this on coffee, chocolate, tea, rice, or sugar, it means that the farmers received fair prices for their products.
  • Marine Stewardship Council: If you see this on a package of fish sticks or Alaskan salmon, it means the seafood was caught without endangering the species or harming the local ecosystem.

Natural Foods

Natural foods are foods that are minimally processed and remain as close as possible to their whole, original state. Natural foods don't have to adhere to the same rigorous standards organic foods do. However, the term "natural" generally means a product has no artificial ingredients or preservatives and that meat or poultry is minimally processed and free of artificial ingredients.

Natural foods can be organic, but not all are — some natural foods, for instance, may have been produced on a farm that has not been certified organic. If you want to be sure that what you're eating is organic, look for the "organic" labeling, which means they've been certified as meeting the USDA's standards.

Getting More Information

Keeping track of all these terms and their meanings can be confusing. To make labels more consistent and understandable, the USDA is now developing standards for labels like grass-fed, pasture-raised, and others that will be subject to USDA inspection.

Also, many individual food producers, dairies, farms, and orchards have websites you can visit to find out more about their standards. You also can find ratings and other label information from reputable consumer groups online.

Is Organic Food Healthier?

The USDA does not claim that organic foods are safer or more nutritious than those produced conventionally, but organic foods can be part of a healthy diet. Whether they are much better for you than conventional food is still up for debate.

One benefit of organic food is that it is pesticide free, which is definitely better for the environment. It's probably better for you as well, though many people argue that the pesticide residue on foods is too small to cause health problems.

Even with organic products, though, be sure to follow the safe handling recommendations for all foods:

  • Thoroughly wash all produce, and if the skin still isn't clean, peel it off.
  • Organically raised and processed meat can harbor bacteria and should be handled the same as regular meat products — follow kitchen cleanliness rules and cook meats to the proper temperature: 180°F for poultry, 160°F for beef.

Where to Buy Organic Foods

It wasn't so long ago that people who wanted to buy primarily organic foods had to turn to their local food co-ops or settle for a few items in their grocery store. Co-ops and local farmstands are great sources for natural and organic foods. But anyone looking for conventionally grown foods and other items will have to make another stop.

These days, though, it's easy to find a well-rounded selection of organic products. Most groceries offer organic produce, juices, cereals, baby food, dairy products, and more. And many stores are 100% organic or natural — if you don't have one in your neighborhood, there's likely to be one a short drive away.

If you can't find a decent selection of organic foods where you shop, talk to the store manager. The more requests a store gets for natural selections, the more likely it is to stock them.

So when you see foods labeled "organic," consider giving them a try — they're likely to be both delicious and good for the planet.

Reviewed by: Mary L. Gavin, MD
Date reviewed: October 2013