Are you a strict believer who would never dream of buying regular old produce? Or are you tired of your friend yapping on and on about their organic stuff while you still don’t quite get what the freakin’ fuss is all about? After all, you didn’t eat organic kale growing up and turned out completely fine. Whatever your stance, do you know exactly what “organic” means? Do you care? Read on.
What is organic agriculture?
Organic agriculture makes products using methods that preserve the environment and avoid most synthetic materials, such as pesticides and antibiotics. The United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) sets forth “organic standards” which describe in detail how farmers grow crops and raise livestock and which materials they may use. These standards cover the product from farm to table, including soil and water quality, pest control, livestock practices, and rules for food additives.
Organic farms and processors:
- Preserve natural resources and biodiversity
- Support animal health and welfare
- Provide access to the outdoors so that animals can exercise their natural behaviors
- Only use approved materials
- Do not use genetically modified ingredients
- Receive annual onsite inspections
- Separate organic food from non-organic food
Most operations that grow, handle, or process organic products – and that want to call their products organic – must be certified. To ensure the integrity of organic products the USDA uses methods such as inspections and residue testing as well as enforcement actions for non-compliance.
That means, if you see the USDA organic seal, the product is certified organic and has 95 percent or more organic content. It is a food label you can trust. Other labels – not so much.
Voluntary labels for livestock products and animal raising claims
While they “must be truthful and not misleading,” not all food labels are regulated or even clearly defined.
Free range: The flock was provided shelter in an area with unlimited access to food, fresh water, and continuous access to the outdoors during their production cycle. This label is regulated by the USDA.
Cage-free: The flock was able to freely roam a building, room, or enclosed area with unlimited access to food and fresh water during their production cycle.
Natural: As required by the USDA, meat, poultry, and egg products labeled as “natural” must be minimally processed and contain no artificial ingredients. However, the natural label does not include any standards regarding farm practices and only applies to processing of meat and egg products. There are no standards or regulations for the labeling of natural food products if they do not contain meat or eggs. In that case, “natural” does not mean anything at all. Beware of greenwashing!
Grass-fed: Grass-fed animals receive a majority of their nutrients from grass throughout their life, while organic animals’ pasture diet may be supplemented with grain. Also USDA regulated, the grass-fed label does not limit the use of antibiotics, hormones, or pesticides. Meat products may be labeled as grass-fed organic.
Pasture-raised: Due to the number of variables involved in pasture-raised agricultural systems, the USDA has not developed a federal definition for pasture-raised products.
Humane: Multiple labeling programs make claims that animals were treated humanely during the production cycle, but the verification of these claims varies widely. These labeling programs are not regulated under a single USDA definition.
No added hormones: A similar claim includes “Raised without Hormones.” Federal regulations have never permitted hormones or steroids in poultry, pork, or goat. This means that you may have been paying a premium for products like chicken breast that are labeled “hormone free” while there were never any hormones in any chicken to begin with.
Why is organic more expensive?
Compared to conventional farming, growing organic crops is typically done on a smaller scale, it is more time consuming and labor intensive. Therefore, organic produce is in general more expensive than its conventionally grown counter part. Mr. Healthy Haus estimates that our grocery bill has gone up at least 20% since getting on the health(ier) train. Yikes!
To save money…
1. Remember that it is not necessary to buy absolutely all produce organic. The Environmental Working Group analyzed pesticide residue testing data from the USDA and the FDA and came up with rankings for popular fresh produce items. They provide a “Clean 15” as well as a “Dirty Dozen” list so you can make an informed decision on which fruits and vegetables to buy organic or conventionally grown. Check out the complete Shopper’s Guide HERE.
2. Try buying produce at a farmers market. The fruits and vegetables will be local and in season, eliminating added cost from transport and the middle-man retailer. To find one in your area check out www.localharvest.org.
3. Stock up on frozen produce as it may be cheaper than its fresh Doppelganger and still get great nutritional value. Another option is to buy in bulk. Costco has a decent variety of organic produce – fresh and frozen – as well as organic eggs, milk, chicken breast, bread, olive and coconut oil, and brown rice.
4. Join a local produce co-op. I just started buying fruits and veggies that way and am very excited to share more details soon. Stay tuned!
Sources: www.usda.gov and http://www.EWG.org