organic junk food

If you’re not careful, organic food labels can convince you to make bad decisions

June 10, 2015
Ingredients + Tips

We’ve all done it. Found a hack or shortcut to help us make easier decisions. According to researchers at Cornell University, the average person makes 226.7 decisions about food a day, so can we really blame ourselves?


Organic Food is Mainstream


organic walmart


Organic food sales in 2014 were $32 Billion and at 11% year over year growth is the highest growing category of food.  In the US Walmart and Krogers, prominently offer organic products.


For many, the shortcut for healthier eating is to buy organic.  For these consumers, organic serves as a proxy for healthy.


But is organic always healthier?   After all, organic ice cream is still ice cream.  I dove into some research about organic food.

Just what is organic?

Organic is a labeling term indicating a food (or other agricultural products like cotton) was produced through approved methods focused on sustainable, ecological and conservation practices.  Genetic engineering, ionizing radiation, sewage sludge or synthetic chemicals like pesticides, herbicides and fertilizers may not be used.


The United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) sets standards (along with a board comprised of members from the organic community) and oversees organic certification, compliance and enforcement activities domestically and globally.


In order to sell, label or represent a product in the US as organic (see below for all the different ways organic can shows up on the actual food packaging), operations must follow the specifications outlined by the USDA organic standards


How do you know if a product is organic?


usda organic




Organic does not always mean 100% organic.  In fact, the USDA actually operates 4 levels of organic labels.


  1. “100 Percent Organic”: must show an ingredients list with 100% organic ingredients, the name and address of the handler (bottler, distributor, importer, manufacturer, packer, processor, etc.) of the finished product, and the name/seal of the organic certifier.


  1. “Organic” must contain at least 95 percent organic ingredients. The label must contain an ingredient list that identifies the organic, as well as the non-organic ingredients in the product and the name of the organic certifier.


  1. “Made with Organic (specified ingredients or food groups)” must contain at least 70 percent organic ingredients. The label must contain an ingredients list that identifies the organic, as well as the non-organic ingredients in the product, along with the name of the organic certifier.


  1. Ingredient panel Organic claim: If a product contains less than 70 percent organic ingredients, the product can list the organic ingredients with the organic adjective. These products cannot use the word “organic” on the principal display panel or display any certifier seals.



various claims


Another point of confusion? Other packaging claims. Terms such as “free-range”, “hormone-free”, and “natural” can still appear on product labels. However, such claims should not be confused with the term “organic.”


How is organic labeling enforced?

The USDA manages an enforcement program. Violations of the USDA’s organic labeling rules can earn companies civil penalties of up to $11,000. If that seems small, it should.

The low penalties and the volume of organic products flooding the markets have led to skepticism that the USDA is adequately enforcing the label, inspecting foods and punishing violators.


With the explosive growth in organic and the high premiums organic products carry, some worry “organic” has turned into a marketing term with little meaning.


That being said, when you buy organic goods at most stores and from most known brands, you can be largely sure that it meets the guidelines.


Organic for healthier eating?

There are many considerations when buying organic food, one key driver is increased focus on health and wellness.


A 2012 Stanford University study sparked a much heated debate about whether organic foods provide greater nutritional benefits than conventional food.  Critics point to the study’s narrow scope which neglects to include additional reasons for choosing organic such as reduced and restricted pesticide use, elimination of additives and antibiotics, and environmental sustainability.


If healthier eating means lowering pesticide and reducing antibiotics than organic is healthier


So then, just how can organic make you stupid?

organic junk food



Blindly buying organic products in a grocery store does not necessarily translate into healthy eating.  It also probably results in a much more expensive grocery visit.


There is a very real difference between an organic apple and organic junk food though.  Yet, the organic halo often produces interesting consumer behavior.


A mother I know insists on her child only eating organic.  She is not alone in her perception of organic and its halo.  Findings show consumers ascribe higher perceptions of quality to organic products versus conventional and some even think organic tastes better.


Fundementally it is all relative. Organic sugar is still sugar and if one blindly buys organic processed foods because they are healthier perhaps this point is being missed.  The only organic mother for example insists on organic milk for her child but also gives him organic snacks every day that contain more than the daily recommended sugar amount for a child of his age.


And many organic dairy products still contain carrageenan, a food ingredient that is allowable in organic labeling because it is naturally occurring.  (Read my earlier post about why I avoid carrageenan).


Should I buy organic or not?

This decision is ultimately up to you, but make sure you know what you are buying and why you are buying it.  As much as shortcuts are helpful, sometimes it pays to become more informed.  It never hurts to check food labels and ingredients lists, and below are some links to great resources I have found useful in navigating the organic or not decision for my family.  Please share what you have found useful in the comments.



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