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What Does “Organic” On Your Food Labels Really Mean?

Mar. 27, 2014|1007 views


I strongly believe in the value of eating organic foods whenever possible. I’m concerned about synthetic pesticides, herbicides, and other artificial chemicals that may be present in conventionally grown foods. And I know that one way to reduce my family’s exposure to these questionable chemicals is to buy, serve, and eat organic. I also know that organic plants tend to have higher concentrations of beneficial plant compounds. That’s because many of the most healthful compounds—called phytonutrients—tend to be more concentrated in organic produce.

Organically-raised produce contains more of these compounds because they usually play an important role in a plant’s natural defenses against insults and assaults from the environment. Glucosinolates in broccoli, for example, are chemical compounds produced to ward off insects. Resveratrol in grapes helps prevent damage from UV light. As it turns out, these compounds are also highly beneficial in the human body. When broccoli is grown with massive amounts of synthetic pesticides and artificial fertilizers, the plant doesn’t have to work so hard to protect itself. So it produces relatively fewer of these cancer-fighting chemicals. 

This is a point that the media often overlooks. They focus on things like calories, fiber, or vitamin C content, and conclude that there’s little differencebetween organic and conventionally-grown foods in the amounts of these substances. That may be true. But it ignores the fact that organic produce is more likely to feature greater amounts of nutrients—such as glucosinolates or resveratrol—that are not ordinarily listed on nutrition labels.

So what does “organic” really mean? Or “natural,” for that matter? The U.S. Department of Agriculture requires organic foods to meet stringent guidelines. Only food that has been grown, handled and processed according to these standards may be labeled “USDA Organic”. If a product contains 100% organic food, it may be labeled as such. Mixtures may be labeled “organic” if they are at least 95% organic. If a product contains at least 70% organic ingredients, it may be labeled “Made with organic ingredients”. If less than 70% of a product’s ingredients are organic, it cannot be labeled organic, but individual ingredients may be listed as organic. Terms like “natural,” “free range,” or “hormone free” must be accurate, but they don’t necessarily mean the same thing as organic.

Fernandes VC, Domingues VF, et al. Strawberries from integrated pest management and organic farming: phenolic composition and antioxidant properties. Food Chem. 2012 Oct 15;134(4):1926-31. doi: 10.1016/j.foodchem.2012.03.130. Epub 2012 Apr 9.

Vinha AF, Barreira SV, et al. Organic versus conventional tomatoes: influence on physicochemical parameters, bioactive compounds and sensorial attributes. Food Chem Toxicol. 2014 May;67:139-44. doi: 10.1016/j.fct.2014.02.018. Epub 2014 Feb 23.


Tags:  dietary fiber, chemicals beware, organic, antioxidant, health tips