Diet and Nutrition: How to Read Organic Labels

The benefits of organic food have recently been highlighted and are often considered to be important elements to be incorporated into a healthy diet. But many consumers who want to make healthier food choices find purchasing organic foods confusing: firstly, what is organic food? And what do organic food labels, such as certified organic, really mean? Our guide on how to read organic labels will help you on your way to healthy eating.

What is Organic Food?: The Advantages of Organic Foods
Organic food is based on a classification system that outlines how food should not be produced, as opposed to how it should be produced. As such, organic foods must be made without the use of sewer-sludge fertilizers, most synthetic fertilizers and pesticides, as well as without the use of genetic engineering (biotechnology, which is used to produce cloned food), growth hormones, irradiation and antibiotics. This definition is according to guidelines established by the National Organic Standards Board in 1995.

In addition to being more earth-friendly, organic foods are considered to have certain health benefits, including increased nutrition levels such as vitamin levels - in particular vitamin C levels - minerals and polyphenols, which are naturally-occurring antioxidants that help improve immune system health.

Guide to Reading Organic Food Labels
Reading organic food labels carefully is key to determining whether or not a food is indeed organic.

Firstly, look for the term 'organic' on fruits and vegetables, or on the sign above organic produce displays; these labels can also appear on meat packages, egg and milk cartons, cheese and other single-ingredient organic foods.

The following are some common terms used in organic food labels and their meanings:

  • 100 percent organic: these foods must contain only ingredients classified as organic
  • organic: food items must have a minimum of 95% organic ingredients, either by weight or fluid, excluding water and salt
  • made with organic materials: must be made with a minimum of 70% organic materials
  • certified organic: foods must be grown according to strict uniform standards that are verified by independent states or private organizations; certified organic foods mean that periodic testing of soil and water of farms that produce organic foods must be conducted, and field and processing facilities must be inspected
  • transitional: these are foods produced during the three-year transition period between the conversion of conventional and organic food production

In addition, foods that are grown according to federal standards usually feature a "USDA organic label" based on the guidelines for organic foods set forth by the U.S. Department of Agriculture; however, this label is voluntary and some companies choose not to include this label. When in doubt, speak to your grocer about questions you may have regarding food production.

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