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Tuesday, July 15, 2014

Understanding Food Labels

Buying organic is of growing importance to many Americans.  As the truth about the chemicals
growers put on our food comes out, and more so the truth about all the "extra" ingredients in packaged and processed food, more and more people are working to return to healthier options - organic options.  But to twist the old adage about boys - Companies will be Companies, and they are working hard to make a buck rather than have to be honest... Meaning of course that many "organic" products are not entirely organic.


The truth is, even those products labeled "Organic" by the USDA are not "true" (meaning 100%) organic foods.  The USDA has levels of Organic Classifications, but if you do not understand them, you may not really be buying or eating what you think you are!

Single Ingredient Foods - Produce, Meat, Eggs, Rice, Flour, etc.  Any food which is simply grown/harvested (or in the case of things like flour or meat, grown/harvested and ground)  and sold which carries a USDA "Organic" label is in fact required to be grown, harvested and "packaged" without the use of chemicals.

Multi-Ingredient Foods:

  • USDA 100% Organic - All ingredients (minus salt and water) used with the production of this product are certified organic. 
  • USDA Organic - By weight, anything carrying this label must be between 95-99% organic.  Remaining ingredients are organic but they must be approved by the National Organic Program.
  • "Made With Organic Ingredients" - You will NOT find a USDA Organic seal on these products, but in order for this claim to be listed on a package it must meet the criteria of being between 70-94% Organic.  While they won't have the USDA seal, they are permitted to list up to three organic ingredients on the front of the package. As always though, remember to packages information panel for all the ingredients. 
  • Products with Less than 70% Organic Ingredients - There is no real regulation for products with this level or organic ingredients. There are no labels. BUT companies are permitted to list organic ingredients in the ingredients where applicable.
There are more than a few other labels floating around on foods today.  The USDA "verifies" some of these claims at the time of labeling approval, however, there are still loopholes. 
  • Free-Range:  Used for poultry.  Indicates that the flock was provided shelter in a building, room, or area with unlimited access to food, fresh water, and continuous access to the outdoors during their production cycle. The outdoor area may or may not be fenced and/or covered with netting-like material. This label is regulated by the USDA.
  • Cage-Free:  Used for poultry. Indivates that the flock able to freely roam a building, room, or enclosed area with unlimited access to food and fresh water during their production cycle.
  • Natural:  The USDA requires 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.
  • Grass-fed:  Indicates that 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 / Raised Without Hormones:  Federal regulations have never permitted hormones or steroids in poultry, pork, or goat. 
As I said, these labels aren't always as honest as they should be.  And new regulations have been considered which could "exempt" synthetic fertilizers, some pesticides, sewage sludge, irradiated materials and/or even GMO's from affecting the "organic" status of a product. So take them with a grain of salt. But it's still a good idea to keep an eye out for them, at least in principal.  

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