Why Organic is Great, and How it Could Be Better

“Mom, look! Organic gummy bears!”
“Yes, I see. No more sweets.”
“Mom, but they’re organic!”
– Overheard in the checkout lane of a natural foods store.

In a 2010 University of Michigan study, Americans showed a few serious misconceptions about what the Organic certification actually means, confusing it with low-calorie and generally healthier foods.

So, we present to you this guide on WHAT ORGANIC ACTUALLY MEANS.

This post is part of our Explaining Eco-Logos series. Click to view the whole series.

There are four tiers of organic labeling in the USA.

“100% Organic” ★★★★ Literally every ingredient is certified organic. We like this one!
“Organic” ★★★ At least 95% of ingredients are really organic. Not too shabby.
“Made with organic ingredients” ★★ At least 70% of ingredients are organic. Food under this status can’t use the USDA Organic logo, though.
Anything else with less than 70% organic ingredients, can use the term “organic” ONLY in the ingredients list on the back.

In America, the use of the term “Organic” is overseen by the US Department of Agriculture, and accredited third-party inspectors are responsible for assigning the label to food production.

At its heart, “Organic” means that the food has been produced under tighter standards around pesticide and antibiotic use, additives, animal treatment, soil quality, and other factors — all common-sense stuff that usually means a more integrated, respectful way of cultivating our food. (Check out the USDA blog for more.)

It’s not a watertight standard, and plenty of bigger organic food sellers have been found to be just barely squeaking by, technically following the regulations, but not really in line the intent of the organic program. (That’s a debate for another time, but we encourage you to read about it!)

This isn’t a real certification.

It’s worth noting that some amount of pesticide use and genetically-modified crops ARE indeed permitted under organic standards. (But certainly less of these than in the rather unregulated “non-organic” food market.) And there’s no reason that organic cheez-puffs are any healthier for you than standard cheez-puffs, though they are probably better for the planet.

Similarly, “Organic” doesn’t mean anything when it’s applied to cosmetics. The USDA doesn’t regulate those (remember A is for Agriculture), so for a few years it’s been the Wild West for personal care products – you can’t know who to trust, unless you actually see the USDA organic logo. For example, you might be familiar with shampoo and conditioner under the Organix label. But despite the name, and some ingredients labeled “organic,” none of the ingredients are actually subject to organic standards. Some stores, like Whole Foods, refuse to sell improperly labeled organic products. The Organic Consumers Association is campaigning to get the USDA to intervene.

Where are you seeing the organic logo? Let us know in the comments below.

Photo credit: Tim Psych, via Flickr and Wonder Tonic for the lovely fake ones.

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