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Diet and Nutrition

Organic Foods . . . On the Rise

Have you noticed an increasing number of organic foods and beverages at a variety of retail stores? The number of organic products and distributors has grown substantially in the past few years, with some grocery chains now offering their own brand of organic foods.

What are organic foods?

Organic foods are produced with techniques that promote the use of renewable resources and conservation of soil and water. These foods are produced without using most pesticides, synthetic fertilizers, radiation, or bioengineering. Organic meat, poultry, eggs, and dairy products come from animals that are given no antibiotics or growth hormones. Therefore, consumers cite both environmental and health benefits as reasons for purchasing organic foods, in spite of their higher prices when compared to similar foods that are conventionally grown.

Are organic foods regulated by the government?

In October 2002, the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) set standards for the way that organic foods are grown, handled, and processed. A government-approved certifier inspects the farm where the foods are grown to verify that all rules are being followed. Companies that handle or process organic foods after they leave the farm also must be certified.

In addition to these standards, the USDA developed strict labeling rules. Single-ingredient products, such as fruits, vegetables, eggs, meat, or milk, may be labeled "organic" if grown and processed according to USDA standards. Multi-ingredient products, such as cereals and snack bars, can be labeled "organic", if at least 95% of the ingredients are organic. They may be labeled "100% organic", if indeed all of the ingredients are organic. A product that is at least 70% organic may use the term "made with organic ingredients" on the front of the product, and may list the organic ingredients. Lastly, a product with less than 70% organic ingredients may list those ingredients on the side panel of the package, but may not make any organic claims on the front of the package.

What does the USDA Organic seal mean?

If a food contains the USDA organic seal, you can be sure the food is at least 95% organic. Terms such as "natural", "free-range", and "hormone-free" cannot be used interchangeably with "organic". Only foods that are labeled "organic" have met the USDA organic standards.

Are organic foods healthier and safer than other foods?

The USDA makes no claims that organic foods are healthier or safer than conventionally produced food. Although some studies have shown higher levels of nutrients in organic produce, more research is needed before conclusions can be reached about their nutritional superiority. More research is also needed to understand the health risks associated with long-term exposure to the pesticides, growth-promoting hormones, and antibiotics associated with conventional farming.

For more information about organic foods, visit the USDA website.

This article originally appeared in Nutri-bytes (January 2008), a service of the University of Cincinnati College of Nursing and was adapted for use on NetWellness with permission.

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Last Reviewed: Jan 10, 2008

Bonnie J Brehm, PhD, RD Bonnie J Brehm, PhD, RD
Professor of Nursing
College of Nursing
University of Cincinnati