Thursday, April 16, 2009

Health and Wellness

The Truth About Organics
Article by Tish Brewer
Photos by Robert Bittle

A trend toward the “green” is everywhere these days. We see the words “organic” and “natural” slapped onto just about anything, but what do they really mean? You’ve got good reason to be confused when trying to decipher the different colors, shapes and sizes of organic labels. There seem to be as many definitions for the word “organic” as there are companies cashing in on the trend.


The organic movement began as a reaction to the industrialized nature of the food system. But now, it seems many companies are blurring the line between organic and mass-produced, using organic labels as nothing more than a gimmicky marketing tool. Now that social- and environmental-consciousness has moved beyond the Earth-loving hippie set, larger companies are getting in on the action. It’s sometimes hard to know exactly what you are buying, or if it’s truly healthy and sustainable. So here’s the skinny on organic food:

The U.S. Department of Agriculture set standards for the use of the word “organic” on labels almost ten years ago. They accredit independent certifiers, who then check the claims of producers. But now, the issue of whether or not a product actually meets these requirements is becoming more sensitive. Currently, there are four basic standards for using the word “organic” on foods:

1. Foods that are 100% organic can be labeled “100% organic” or “certified USDA organic”, and can bear the “USDA organic” seal. This is the gold standard, and means the product has been raised without any synthetic pesticides or fertilizers, antibiotics, genetically engineered seeds, irradiation, or sewage sludge. Organic animals must eat certified organic feed, containing no growth hormones or animal by-products. Prepared foods with this label must contain 100-percent certified organic ingredients, with no additives.

2. Foods that are 95% organic can be labeled “organic” if the remaining 5% of ingredients cannot be found in organic form. They can also bear the “USDA organic” seal. The product cannot use both organic and non-organic versions of any ingredient that is listed organic. The remaining 5% of ingredients are approved by the USDA’s National Organic Standards Board (NOSB). Recent controversy resulted in the list of allowed non-organic ingredients being whittled down from 600 to 38. A few non-organic ingredients that remain on the approved list are celery powder, natural sausage casings, chia, natural food colorings, fish oils, and hops. The Organic Trade Association (OTA) supports the list in its entirety.

3. Foods that are 70% organic can include the phrase “made with organic” because they include organic ingredients. These packages may display “made with organic [up to three specific organic ingredients or food groups listed]” on the main panel. The non-organic ingredients should be NOSB approved.

4. Foods containing less than 70% organic ingredients can have the word “organic” only in their lists of ingredients. There can be no mention of organic on the main panel of the package.

There are other common terms like “free range” and “natural”, which are used very loosely, and have very little government regulation. “Free range” could mean the gate to the field or door to the coop is open for only minutes a day, whether or not the animals go out. These are just words with out regulation. Just remember “USDA Organic” is regulated and the other words are just words. The term “natural” has no regulation at all, and has no relation to organic; it simply implies that the product contains no artificial colors or ingredients.

So how do we shop? When do we buy organic? You should always buy organic when the conventional option is known to have a heavy burden of pesticides, chemicals additives, and hormones. Here’s the short list of the biggest culprits: meats (beef, pork and poultry), milk, coffee, peaches and nectarines, apples, pears, tomatoes, bell peppers, celery, strawberries, raspberries, cherries, spinach and lettuces, grapes, and potatoes.

When do you save your dough? Use common sense. For seafood, it’s fairly difficult to control what actually goes into fish, and there are no warning labels for content of chemicals such as mercury. Though seafood is allowed to carry an organic label, the government has yet to develop certification standards, so the label is useless. (The “wild” versus “farm raised” labels are another ball game). Other safe conventional foods include those with fewer threats from pests or disease, and those with thick skins that protect from pesticide residue: asparagus, onions, avocado, kiwi, mango, pineapple, cabbage, papaya, etc. For processed foods, read past the label and check out the ingredients.

What else to do? Buy a share in a community supported organic farm to counteract the “bigger, cheaper” organic food trend. In doing so you’ll conserve fuel, reduce pollution, and preserve farms as a community resource. Or build a bed and grow your own fruits and veggies…seed is cheap!


Currently, there are USDA standards for certifying cotton plants and the fibers they produce as being organic. This is because cotton seeds and oils are also important food products. But, the organic label only applies to the cotton fibers, and not to the processed cotton fabric that might be full of chemical finishes and heavy metal dyes by the time it gets cut to make your favorite “green” tee. Even when the fibers are certified organic, there may be environmental issues that still remain.

The Organic Trade Association (OTA) is currently working to expand its influence from foods and agriculture into textiles. The OTA standard is still undergoing revision and modification. The rules would be similar to those applied to food by the USDA, and would apply to all chemicals used in the manufacturing processes for all natural fibers.

Right now, there are no federal standards regulating the labeling of “green” apparel, so regulation of organic clothing falls upon nonprofit consumer organizations. So how safe is your label? It depends on how deep you are willing to look, but the organic label can essentially be as comforting as you want it to be. If you are a real purist, look for only those organic textiles that are dyed with organically grown plant dyes.

Personal Care Products

Cosmetics and beauty products are notorious for being labeled “organic” or “natural” when they actually aren’t, and they can really break the bank too. Some companies use only ingredients the USDA permits in certified organic food, and you’ll see the “USDA organic” label on those packages. But because there is less regulation in this realm, you may also see an organic label applied to products with only one organic ingredient in the whole list, while the rest are chemicals. Companies spin the labels to advertise whatever they want them to mean. With personal care products, the organic label doesn’t mean anything unless it’s USDA certified, and even then you should still pay attention. Reviewing ingredients is especially important here. True organic products do not contain preservatives, parabens, sodium lauryl (or laureth) sulfate, ethanolamines (TEA, DEA or MEA), phthalates, formaldehyde derivatives, or undisclosed “fragrance”.

Stay educated, do some research, and learn what to look for. Our skin readily absorbs any chemicals we apply to it, so get to know the safety of your favorite products. Many chemicals in personal care products have not yet been banned as ingredients in the U.S., where loopholes in regulations allow as much as a third of these products to contain at least one chemical linked to cancer. So read the fine print, and in the meantime…make your own!

A Note on Pet Products

It is actually legal for manufacturers to label their products as organic, even if there are no organic ingredients within them. There really aren’t any regulations that pertain specifically to pet food and other pet products, though they are in development. For your pets, as for yourself, compare ingredient lists and do the best you can. Your pet will be around longer to thank you for it if you choose high quality products.

Live the Green Life, As Much As It Makes Sense

Every day, we are presented with more options for organic foods, organic cosmetics, organic bed and bath products, organic toys, organic pet products, even organic and sustainable furniture. Know that “certified organic”, “organic” and “natural” labels are not the same thing. Be aware, and separate the truly organic products from the trendy green-washed ones. Support sustainable when you can. Figure out why buying organic is important to you, and do it as much as you can afford it. Bottom line is, some products are worth spending the extra bucks on organic, and some aren’t.

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