Dicom Inside Health: USDA Rules on Organic Certification

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Just because a label describes itself as organic doesn’t mean it actually is. You can waste a lot of money on products you think are organic when in reality, you’re just buying a label. The National Organic Program (NOP) and the Organic Foods Production Act provide guidance and standards for determining whether a product is actually organic as well as the different levels of organic.

Here’s what you’ll need to know when making a purchase.

Organic Does Not Necessarily Mean All Organic

Currently, the FDA and the NOP do not require that all foods labeled organic be completely so. Only foods labeled as 100 percent organic are actually 100 percent organic. Otherwise, they can claim to be organic, but they may have some non-organic ingredients. Generally, products must be 95 percent organic or higher, meaning that 95 percent of the products are determined to be organic in accordance with the National Organic Certification Procedures. None of the prohibited foods from the Organic Foods Production Act of 1990 may appear in these foods, either. Both 100 percent organic and organic foods can display the USDA Organic Seal. Always remember to check the ingredients, though, in case you are allergic to certain non-organic foods.

Additionally, not all of the organic ingredients listed are necessarily organic. In a series of lawsuits that cropped up starting in 2002, the USDA started analyzing some of the ingredients that they allowed to be used in 100 percent and 95 percent organic foods that claimed that the final product was organic. While they started out with more than 600 ingredients, the USDA has since cut the number down to less than 40. These include ingredients like gelatin, hops, chipotle chili peppers, and natural sausage casings.

The Seal Does Matter

Even though it might seem like a trivial thing, you need to make sure that the processed organic food you buy actually does display the USDA organic seal. Otherwise, as much as 30 percent of that food could be preservative-laced processed food. The USDA does not allow these particular products to be labeled as USDA Organic, and they aren’t allowed to display the seal. However, they are allowed to claim that they are made with organic ingredients. Products with less than 70 percent organic ingredients can still list themselves as organic in the ingredient list rather than on the front of the label.

Additionally, the type of seal matters. Some organic foods appear with labels that state “certified organic” or “fresh organic ingredients.” Consumers typically assume that this is the equivalent of the “USDA Certified Organic” label, but it’s not. The National Food Processors Association warns that as much as half of the ingredients could be conventionally grown rather than organically grown.

Many people presume that organic foods offer greater health benefits, and as a result, they are willing to pay more for them. But a label that describes food or products as organic does not necessarily mean that the entire product is organic. Even the USDA Certified Organic label can still be used on foods that have some conventionally grown ingredients. It’s important to understand the levels of distinction as well as the accepted conventional ingredients so that you know what it is you’re really buying.

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