U.S. consumers are eating more organic food as they reach for items that are touted as healthier and more socially responsible. Sales in the U.S. of organic food rose 4.6 percent in 2020 to $50.1 billion according to the Organic Trade Association.
What does organic mean?
Not every item at a supermarket or farmers market can be labeled as organic, so knowing what makes a food organic will help you make an informed choice at the store. Foods certified organic by the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) must be grown and processed according to federal guidelines. Those guidelines vary between produce and meat. Generally, to become certified, the USDA will regulate many factors such as soil quality, animal raising practices, pest and weed control and use of additives. Consumers can only be certain that a food item is following these USDA guidelines if it has a USDA organic label.
The USDA regulates the use of the word “natural” only when applied to meat, poultry and eggs and there is little regulation behind the use of “natural” for other products. For meat, poultry and eggs, a USDA natural label will mean the product contains no artificial ingredients or added color and is only minimally processed.
Organic fruits and vegetables
If avoiding synthetic fertilizers and pesticides are important to you, look for the organic seal. The USDA will not certify fruits and vegetables as organic if it is grown in soil that had prohibited substances applied to it within the last three years. Most synthetic fertilizers and pesticides are included on the USDA’s prohibited substance list.
In addition to prohibiting certain chemicals, the USDA also bans genetically modified organisms (GMOs) from receiving the organic label. This means that an organic farmer can’t plant GMO seeds and receive an organic label.
Organic meat and poultry
The USDA has different organic criteria for meat producers. Organic meat producers are required to ensure animals are raised in living conditions accommodating their natural behaviors, fed only organic feed and forage and not administered antibiotics or hormones. Because those animals eat 100% organic feed, you can be assured that they aren’t consuming a GMO.
Milk from cows must have been raised organically since the last third of their mother’s pregnancy to be certified as organic. That means dairy producers must follow the same rules during that period as meat producers.
The USDA does not regulate or have standards for labeling seafood as organic.
If you’re ready to include organic items on your shopping list, here are a few things to remember to look for:
- Be a smart shopper. Compare the price of organic items at the grocery store, online, farmer’s markets or other venues.
- Buy in season. Produce, fruits and vegetables are cheapest and freshest when they are in season. You can ask your market or grocery store when produce is delivered so you’re buying the freshest food possible.
- Read food labels. Organic does not necessarily equal healthy so be cautious about marketing ploys. What we typically think of as "junk food" might sound healthy in an organic version, but organic baked goods, desserts and snacks may still be still very high in calories, sugar, salt and fat.