Is it organic? Navigating the world of food labels

Is it organic? Navigating the world of food labels

By KATE KELLY gardening@theeagle.com

But is it organic? Navigating the world of food labels

"Organic," "Certified Organic," "natural," "sustainable," "GMO," "non-GMO" -- do any of these labels mean anything in particular? The answer seems to be yes and no. Some have precise meanings, but those meanings aren't always applied precisely or fully understood by those of us looking for healthy foods.

Let's imagine we're at a farmer's market, and we've spied a beautiful head of purple cabbage. This particular grower tells you that the cabbages were grown "organically." But what does that mean? Does it mean that no pesticides were used on the cabbages, or that only organically approved pesticides were used? Does the label take into account the history of the seeds, soil and water that grew the cabbage? Most importantly, does it mean that the grower has gone through the rigorous process of becoming "certified organic"?

What's required to be certified organic, anyway, and what difference does it make? It turns out that to become certified, a producer needs money (probably more than $1,000), time (years), patience (there aren't many certifiers) and the faith that customers will be waiting when the process has been completed. This is where the incentive lies: Large farms and ranches opting to pursue certification know that there is a healthy and growing market for organically certified products. In 2017, USA Today reported a record $43 billion total for sales of organic food, up 8.4 percent from 2016. Small organic farms may find making a profit much more challenging. And it's worth noting that smaller farms, those selling $5,000 or less per year, are exempt from certification -- but not from inspection and evaluation.

Some of the specific rules for certification begin to give a sense of what "organically certified" means and of the gulf separating this classification from conventionally grown food. For example, one rule reads, "All agricultural products that are to be sold, labeled, or represented as '100 percent organic,' 'organic,' or 'made with organic (specified ingredients or food group(s))' must be made accessible ... or examination by the Administrator, the applicable State organic program's governing State official, or the certifying agent." This rule obviously intends to discourage false labeling and may explain non-organic marketers' use of vague terms such as "natural" when the label "organic" cannot be verified.

Another rule written by the National Organic Program -- the USDA regulatory group that develops national standards for organically produced agricultural products -- states that organic crops must be grown on land that has been free of prohibited pesticides, herbicides and synthetic fertilizers for three years before beginning organic production. Prohibited methods of production in "organic" farming include genetic engineering, ionizing radiation and the use of sewage sludge. In addition, all seeds and transplants grown on a certified farm must originate from certified organic sources. If you want your farm or garden to qualify, you might be better off propagating your own seedlings in organic soil unless you live within convenient distance of a reliable organic seed and transplant provider.

But what verifiable difference does growing organically make to the produce we consume? According to the Mayo Clinic, studies have been limited, but they tend to show the following potential benefits to eating organically: (1) Nutrients: Organic produce shows small to moderate increases in some nutrients, most notably in flavonoids, which have antioxidant properties. (2) Omega-3 fatty acids are found in higher amounts in organically produced meats, dairy and eggs. (3) Toxic metal: Cadmium, a toxic compound found in soils and absorbed by plants, is significantly lower in organic grains, but not in organic fruits and vegetables. (4) Pesticide residue: Compared with conventionally grown produce, organically grown produce has lower detectable levels of pesticide residue; however, the difference in health outcomes is unclear because of safety regulations for maximum levels of residue allowed on conventional produce. (5) Bacteria. Meats produced conventionally may have a higher occurrence of bacteria resistant to antibiotic treatment; however, the overall risk of bacterial contamination of organic foods is the same as conventional foods.

Is there a downside to choosing organics? Organic produce, meat and dairy tend to cost more than their conventionally produced counterparts. This difference can be readily checked at local supermarkets, where organic and conventional products and their prices are both displayed. Finally, consumers must themselves decide whether or not the higher price of organics is worth the extra cost. If supermarket consumers choose organic, they need to check for the organic symbol displayed on or near food or ask workers in the produce department. Those buying at a farmer's market should ask growers whether or not they are "organically certified"; if they're not certified but claim to follow many organic practices, you can ask them what attempts they've made to ensure the health and safety of their food over its conventional counterparts.

And what about "GMO" or "non-GMO" seeds and plants? Many seed packets currently sold to home gardeners contain the label "non-GMO." The acronym "GMO" refer to the words "genetically modified organism." In the genetic modification of plants, scientists remove one or more genes from the DNA of another organism, such as a bacterium, and "recombine" them into the DNA of the plant they want to alter. By adding these new genes, genetic engineers expect the plant to express the traits associated with the genes. For example, genetic engineers have transferred genes from a bacterium known as Bacillus thuringiensis or Bt into the DNA of corn. Bt genes express a protein that kills insects; consequently, transferring the genes allows the corn to produce its own pesticide. In commercial operations, corn, soy, sugar beets, and other widely grown crops now routinely use GMO seed. After conducting safety studies, the scientific community has expressed general support for this technology. But the consumer would be wise to read the pros and cons of this new science. These have been nicely summarized in a science-based review of GMO pluses and minuses: www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3791249/.

And finally, a currently popular but troubling fuzzy term is "sustainable." To grow sustainably or to be produced sustainably is always a "good" thing, but why? A University of California at Los Angeles Committee on Sustainability defines it as: "The physical development and institutional operating practices that meet the needs of present users without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs, particularly with regard to use and waste of natural resources." Sustainable practices take the view that humans should leave the earth's environment better off than they found it for the sake of those coming after us. So when our great-grandchildren look at a purple cabbage in a farmer's market, let's hope it won't be a rare sight but a reliable sign that the climate and soil have become healthier and more productive than they are now.