How to Shop for Safe Organic Foods
Many of us use the term organic without really knowing what it’s all about. We simply know that it’s better than non-organic, which is partially true, depending on the type of organic product you’re buying. Basically, how the organic ingredients are labeled and whether they have the USDA organic seal determines how much of the product is actually organic and what regulations the company had to follow in order to market in that way.
Whether you’re just starting out on your organic journey or you’ve been a long-standing practitioner, getting a refresher on what organic is and how to identify organic ingredients is always a good idea.
Luckily, I’ve put together a quick reference organic refresher guide for you! Let’s dive in!
All About Organic
What does organic actually mean? Yes, it’s definitely a term you should look for when wandering the grocery store shelves. No, it doesn’t mean a product is healthy. The term organic “refers to the way agricultural products are grown and processed.” Simple as that! With that said, there are varying levels of organic that a product can be. In the U.S., “organic crops must be grown without the use of synthetic pesticides, bioengineered genes (GMOs), petroleum-based fertilizers, and sewage sludge-based fertilizers,” in order to be categorized as USDA organic.
Organic foods come with a list of benefits including fewer pesticides, generally richer nutrients, GMO-free, fewer pesticides, fresher food, and organic farming is generally better for the environment.
Debunking the Organic "Pesticide-Free" Myth
The biggest misconception regarding organic foods is that they are 100 percent pesticide free. This is unfortunately not true. While organic foods contain far less pesticides than non-organic, organic farmers are allowed to use pesticides. So, what’s the difference? Organic farmers use “naturally-derived pesticides, rather than the synthetic pesticides used on conventional commercial farms.”
So, while your “exposure to harmful pesticides will be lower” with organic foods, keep in mind you’re still ingesting pesticides of some kind.
National List of Prohibited Substances
The National List of Prohibited Substances is formulated by the government and is used when assessing USDA organic foods. This list “identifies substances that may and may not be used in organic crop and livestock production,” as well as substances “that may be used in or on processed organic products.” Depending on the type of food produced and the type of certification desired, certain synthetic substances are prohibited.
If you’re curious to see the full list, you can find it on the government’s website via the electronic code of federal regulations.
Getting to Know the Organic Categories
When it comes to organic, understanding the different categories and how they are labeled on the packaged is incredibly important. Why? Turns out that a product that has only 70 percent organic ingredients can use the term “organic” on their packaging. Plus, the USDA organic symbol can be used on a product that has either 100 percent organic ingredients, a minimum of 95 percent organic ingredients, or anywhere between 70 percent and 95 percent organic ingredients. If you’re an organic nut like me, then you’ll want to know how to identify the difference between these organic categories.
100 Percent Organic
If you see a package that markets their product as 100 percent organic and they have the USDA organic seal, then you’re purchasing a product that is in fact 100 percent organic. What does this mean? A product that is 100 percent organic — and don’t forget that USDA organic seal — “was produced and processed using only organic methods and organic ingredients (excluding water and salt but including processing aids).” Why the USDA seal? A USDA organic seal means that the facility passed an onsite inspection by a certified USDA official and that zero ingredients from the National List of Prohibited Substances were used. With that said, it’s incredibly complicated to meet these requirements meaning “most products in this category are single-ingredient products."
The most common term you’ll see at the grocery store is organic. A food product that is labeled organic and has the USDA organic seal on the package has been produced “using only organic methods and contains a minimum of 95% organic ingredients.” This is pretty good considering that most 100 percent organic ingredients are single-ingredients! Plus, this identifier also takes into consideration that other 5 percent as well, which as to be “non-GMO and included on the National List of non-organic ingredients permitted in certified organic agriculture and processing.”
Made With Organic Ingredients
As we move further into the realm of “a little organic” it becomes a bit more convoluted. With that said, there are still guidelines that food produces must follow in order to use this terminology on their packaging.
Products that are labeled made with organic ingredients “contain between 70% and 95% organic ingredients,” must contain non-GMO ingredients, are produced without “irradiation or sewage sludge,” and have been certified organic. On top of that, the packaging can list “up to three ingredients or food groups on the front panel. The main identifier for these products is that they are not allowed to use the USDA organic seal even though they have been certified organic. This is a great way to choose between certain food products — such as USDA organic quinoa versus quinoa made with organic — where one contains at least 95 percent organic ingredients and the other may only have 75 percent organic ingredients.
With that said, the made with organic is described as a “stepping stone for companies still searching for organic sources for some of their product ingredients. This means, if you can’t afford the USDA organic product, going with made with organic over non-organic is safer, cleaner, and you’ll be supporting a company that is working towards their USDA organic certification.
Less Than 70 Percent Organic
This category is the bottom of the barrel when it comes to organic food products, yet it’s generally where companies have to start whose goal is to become USDA organic certified.
Any food product produced with “fewer than 70% organic ingredients or less can use the word ‘organic’ to specify organic ingredients in the ingredient panel,” yet they are not allowed to market the food product as organic or organic certified. These foods will not have the USDA organic seal. It’s also important to note that these foods are not regulated on GMO ingredients use, irradiation, or sewage sludge.
While some organic ingredients are better than none, these food products are not regulated by the USDA organic program, yet still must follow Food and Drug Administration (FDA) guidelines for safe production.
Knowing Your Dirty Dozen and Clean Fifteen
For those of us that can’t afford to buy every food item organic, there is another option! Ever heard of the dirty dozen? How about the clean fifteen? These refer to two lists — one with twelve foods and the other with fifteen — published to the public in regards to those you should always purchase organic — generally foods without a protective skin barrier — and those that you can fudge a bit and buy non-organic — generally foods with a protective skin barrier. Below is a rundown of the current 2019 lists!
The dirty dozen food list is produced by the Environmental Working Group (EWG) with the “fruits and vegetables the nonprofit claims have the highest amount of pesticides when grown conventionally versus organically.” The EWG uses “40,900 samples for 47 different types of produce,” to create a list of the dirty dozen. Two things of note: strawberries have made the top of the list for the fourth year in a row and kale has made the list for the first time in a decade. Make sure to thoroughly wash these foods if you don’t decide to buy them organically!
The Clean Fifteen
Along with the dirty dozen, the Environmental Working Group (EWG) also publishes a list of fifteen foods that are safe to purchase non-organic. This is mostly due to the fact that these foods have a natural protective skin that keeps harmful pesticides from leaching into the meat of the product that you would ultimately be consuming. The below fifteen foods have the least amount of pesticide residue in the sampling tested:
Frozen sweet peas
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