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All Things Organic: A Guide

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The amount of organic products on sale in the United Statesand around the world has increased steeply since even the 1990s. In 1997, for example, organic food sales in the United States totaled $3.6 billion. In 2005, the figure had climbed to $13.8 billion1. Sales since then have gone nowhere but up as more and more individuals have become part of the producer-consumer equation.

The best type of consumer, however, is an informed consumer. It is always best to understand the concepts and terminology of organic products. A good place to start is with a simple definition of the word organic.

Defining Organic

According to the United States government and other bodies, organic is a “labeling term” to define specific products produced according to certain practices. Organic food is usually described as prescribing to certain methods of production, they are viewed as

  • Pesticide free
  • Herbicide free
  • Free from synthetic hormones
  • Free from antibiotics
  • Working with the environment using ecological practices to preserve it

Overall, organic becomes defined as a specific mode of production in which, until fairly recently, small and/or local producers adopted methods that were in direct opposition of those utilized by larger and factory farms.

Labeling

The labeling of food as organic is a voluntary process. The United States federal government first began to regulate organic products with the passage of the Organic Foods Production Act. This legislation was enacted with the passage of the 1990 Farm Bill under Title 21. This led to the creation of the National Organic Standards Board and the USDA National Organic Program. The result was the creation of a program for certification of farms and produce as organic. The “Certified Organic Sticker” has since graced foods approved as being organic in origin. Other countries have a similar labeling system.

Labels may vary according to the percentage of organic contents. For example, eggs, fruit and vegetables may qualify for a “100% Organic” sticker. Products in which 95% of the contents are organic can label the product as “Organic.” If the product is 70%, it may sport “made with organic ingredients.”

Why Organic?

There are several reasons why a consumer may prefer organic produce. These include:

  • Nutritional claims – Organic food is better than nonorganic in terms of its contents of minerals, vitamins and related nutrients
  • Health claims – modern food is highly processed and contains substantial and even dangerous levels of pesticides and other chemicals. These are lacking in organic produce and products. As a result, organic food I healthier for you and reduces the risk of diseases and unnecessary disorders. This is a common claim made in some research and surveys2
  •  Reduces stress on the land and is a responsible way to farm
  • Animal welfare – Organic farms do not raise animals in factory farm conditions
  • Safety of the farmers and other workers – Organic farms are perceived as treating workers more equitably and with less risk to their health and safety

Where to find it?

It is not difficult to locate organic produce these days. While it was once a difficult task, today you have a variety of possible sources of produce, meat, dairy and even fish3. You can locate these and other organic products by:

  • Going online to locate a nearby organic producer
  • Visiting certain markets/retailers that only stock and sell organic food
  • Visiting a food cooperative
  • Shopping at a local natural food store
  • Spending time at a Farmers’ Market
  • Seeing if you can take part in a community supported agricultural groups- Buy a share
  • Seeing if your area has shares in a farm – you may work on it or simply sign on to pay for a weekly share of whatever is in season
  • Going to a health food store
  • Shopping in the organic aisles of your favorite retail grocery store

The chart below summarizes the advantages and disadvantages of several outlets for organic food.

Organic Food Outlet Advantages Disadvantages
Food Co-ops Local produce and products soldConvenientFresh Higher pricesLimited variety of available products
Natural (Health) Food Stores ConvenientOften localIf local will be fresh CostLack of variety
Farmers’ Markets FreshConvenientLocalSeasonal SeasonalLack of overall varietyLimited hours
Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) Very freshLow costRare varieties of organic e.g. heirloom varieties Seasonal productsAffected by weather conditions and related factorsTake whatever they have on handMay not have delivery
Retail Outlets Always openConvenient locationReasonable pricesModerate selectionConvenient hours Often limited choiceLocal is frequently not a priorityOrigins of organic may leave a bigger footprint on the earth i.e. shipped, flown etc.

Issues concerning Organic Products

Yet, the organic marketplace has not been free of controversy. Issues are still arising concerning the validity of specific scientific claims. Questions surface consistently about the ability of organics to help you lose weight. Can eating organic food speed up your metabolism more than dining off nonorganic foods. Doubts are also expressed about the nutrient level of organic versus nonorganic items. Is organic food really higher in its overall nutrient content?

At the moment, research is split4. There are no definitive answers. It is the result of having too many variables at work to decisively decide in favor of one or the other camps. This will require time. It also means research must be done in a scientific fashion, without bias for either side. Considering the money at stake and the divisiveness found even within each camp, any certainty may take a while.

Conclusion

The number of organic products currently available has continued to grow. Organic food is no longer a rarity. Many major retail outlets now provide organic products and produce on their shelves. Yet, with the expansion into the mainstream come cautionary tales. Be absolutely certain the product is legitimately organic. Read the labels and see if it is certified so. Companies have fraudulently sold their produce and products as organic. Educate yourself on the issues surrounding organic food including weight loss and nutrient content. In doing so, you will be able to make the right and informed choices for you and your family.



References

USDA (2005). US Market Profile of Organic Food. Retrieved from  www.fas.usda.gov/agx/organics/USMarketProfileOrganicFoodFeb2005.pdf

2 Winter, C. K, & Davis, S. F. (2006). Organic Foods. Journal of Food Science, 71: R117-R124.

3 Burke, C. (207). To Buy Or Not To Buy Organic.New York: Marlowe & Company.

4 Schuldt, JP; and Schwarz, N (2010). The “Organic” Path to Obesity? Organic Claims Influence Calorie Judgments and Exercise Recommendations. Judgment and Decision Making, 5(3):144–150.

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