What makes a food organic, and is the extra money you’ll spend worth it?

By Phyllis Picklesimer
Media/Communications Specialist, University of Illinois College of ACES News and Public Affairs

URBANA, Ill. — Organic foods have gone from being specialty items in health food stores to lining the shelves of mainstream supermarkets. Sales of organic products have climbed from $3.6 billion to $24.4 billion in the past 10 years alone, but many consumers don’t know what makes a food organic and whether the label is worth paying for, said a University of Illinois Extension nutrition and wellness educator.

When products seem to be identical in nutrients and quality, consumers don’t know which one to purchase,” said University of Illinois Extension Nutrition and Wellness Educator Mekenzie Lewis. “Here’s some information that will educate consumers so they can make their own decisions based on their level of concern about pesticides, their budget and other considerations.”

According to Lewis, the term “organic” is mandated by the USDA and refers to the way farmers grow and process agricultural products, including crops and livestock.

Some of the principles behind organic farming practices encourage soil and water conservation and reduce pollution,” she said.

The USDA requires organic products to meet specific standards that regulate how such foods are grown, handled and processed. Organic farming techniques emphasize biodiversity, integration, sustainability, natural plant nutrition, natural pest management and integrity. Products produced under these principles and approved by the USDA will display a USDA Organic label, she said.

Companies abuse the term organic, so looking for the USDA seal is a safe way to know you’re getting a truly organic product,” she advised.

Products that contain some organic ingredients may say “made with organic ingredients” on the label, but they may not use the USDA seal, she said.

Does an organic food have health benefits that other foods do not? The jury is still out on that question, she said.

Although many consumers are concerned that conventionally grown produce contains harmful chemicals that damage our bodies, research suggests that levels on organic produce can be only 30 percent lower, she noted.

Organic foods are not necessarily 100 percent free of pesticides, although pesticide levels generally fall within the allowable safety limits,” she said.

There are several other reasons to buy organic, including taste preferences, concerns about the effects of conventional farming practices on the environment and animal welfare, she said.

Finally, don’t get confused by similar terms that manufacturers use to make their product appealing. ‘All-natural,’ ‘free-range’ and ‘hormone-free’ are some of the other labels thrown around today,” Lewis warned.

These descriptions must be truthful, but consumers shouldn’t confuse them with the term organic, she said.

From the April 3-9, 2013, issue

Enjoy The Rock River Times? Help spread the word!