The Truth Behind Organic Food Labeling
It's unfortunately not well-known that organic food labeling isn't an assurance of safe, organic food. In fact, there are numerous non-organic ingredients allowed to be included in the label and according to the National Organic Standards Board (NOSB), up to 5% may be questionable at best, and appalling at worst.
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The reasons why our organic standards are being slowly lowered is a matter of debate. Many believe it's the infiltration of Big Corporations that have bought out small, formerly independent organic producers and brought with them lots of dollars to put into the legislature changes. Others will tell you it's about making consumers happy - we want quality when we're paying for organic food, we want food that tastes good, and "manufacturers are just trying to make us happy with a few compromises".
I really don't care what the reason is. What I care about is knowing what to avoid and how to avoid it.
Making sense of the information that's out there isn't easy, but I've done my best below. Please let me know if you have additional resources you can add to this page and share with our readers.
Understanding Organic Food Labeling
The first thing to understand is what the NOSB regulates when it comes to organic food. These only apply to the USDA Organic seal:
- Crops: No irradiation. No sewer sludge. No synthetic fertilizers. No prohibited pesticides. No GMO (genetically modified organisms).
- Livestock: Health and welfare standards met. No antibiotics. No hormones. 100% organic feed (although no guarantee if that feed is biologically appropriate). Access to outdoors.
- Foods: 95% of all ingredients on organic food labeling must comply with the above standards. %5 is negotiable. Hmm....
Here's what this could mean: Your animals might be healthier, and have access to the outdoors, but in many cases if an animal is raised in doors and not shuttled out, they won't even find the (often small) door. And cows fed "organic corn" are still not healthy cows, which are biologically designed to eat only grass. But it's that 5% of non-organic ingredients in organic food labeling that concerns most of us. Read more about it below.
Non-Organic Substances Used in Organic Farming
Understanding organic food labeling starts by understanding how organic foods are grown. It also means knowing what you're likely to find in your food, and what is simply used on the farm, contaminating nearby water sources or ecosystems. Some of what is on the non-organic farming list might look totally benign or natural, but it's actually difficult to know the effects, let alone if contamination has occured with any particular crop.
Note: This is just a partial list. Read all regulations here.
Algicides, Disinfectants, Sanitizers
For the most part these synthetic substances may only be used in areas away from the soil where contamination is unlikely to occur. For those with extreme sensitivities this may still pose an issue. These ingredients include: alcohols (such as ethanol), chlorine (read the dangers of bleach here), ozone gas cleaners (adversely affects lungs and asthma172), peracetic acid (highly corrosive, may affect liver and kidney171), sodium carbonate peroxyhydrate (corrosive, danger to honey bees173), and the list goes on.
Most of these herbicides are fairly benign, although the soap-based herbicides may be petroleum based and the plastic mulch has the potential to leach chemicals into the soil as the sun ages the material.
These can include ammonium carbonate, copper sulfate, lime sulfur, and more.
Non-Organic Ingredients to Watch For
After farming procedures, understanding organic food labeling means understanding not only what things are called, but how they are processed and where they are sourced. Some of what you see on this list might look totally benign or natural, so it's important to know your sources. These are the non-organic ingredients that may be included in your Certified Organic foods.
These are only going to be found in processed organic foods - the cookies, crackers, processed meats, protein bars and so on. Want to avoid these? Start by eating whole foods (not processed, even organically) and make your own snacks and treats whenever possible.
Non-Synthetic, Non-Organic Ingredients Found in Organic Food Labeling
- Acids: citric acid, lactic acid
- Animal enzymes (rennet, catalase, lipase, pepsin, etc)
- Calcium carbonate
- Calcium chloride
- Calcium sulfate
- Dairy cultures
- Diatomaceous earth
- Egg white lysozyme
- Enzymes (plant-, fungi-, or bacterial-based)
- "Flavors" from nonsynthetic sources
- Gellan gum
- Glucono delta-lactone
- L-Malic acid
- Magnesium sulfate
- Nitrogen - oil-free grades
- Oxygen - oil-free grades
- Potassium Chloride
- Potassium Iodide
- Sodium Bicarbonate
- Sodium Carbonate
- Tartaric Acid
- Waxes (carnauba)
Synthetic Substances in Organic Food Labeling
- Acidfied sodium chlorite - antimicrobial food treatment
- Activated charcoal
- Ammonium Bicarbonate
- Ammonium Carbonate
- Ascorbic Acid
- Calcium Citrate
- Calcium Hydroxide
- Calcium Phosphates
- Carbon Dioxide
- Cellulose - anti-caking agent
- Chlorine - for disinfecting food surfaces
- Cyclohexylamine - packaging sterilizer
- Diethylaminoethanol - packaging sterilizer
- Ethylene - for fruit ripening and de-greening
- Ferrous Sulfate - vitamin additive (iron)
- Glycerides (mono and di) - for drying
- Hydrogen Peroxide
- Magnesium Carbonate
- Magnesium Chloride
- Magnesium Stearate
- Nutrient vitamins and minerals
- Octadecylamine - packaging sterilization
- Peracetic Acid/Peroxyacetic Acid - sanitizer for food surfaces
- Phosphoric acid - cleaning food surfaces and equipment
- Potassium acid tartrate
- Potassium Carbonate
- Potassium Citrate
- Potassium Hydroxide
- Potassium Phosphate
- Silicon Dioxide
- Sodium Acid Pyrophosphate
- Sodium Citrate
- Sodium Hydroxide
- Sodium Phosphates
- Sulfur Dioxide
- Tartaric Acid
- Tetrasodium pPyrophosphate
- Xanthan Gum
Non-Organic Ingredients in Organic Food Labeling
- Casings - processed intestines
- Celery Powder - as natural nitrates
- Cherry juice - coloring
- Coloring: annatto extract, beet juice, beta-carotene, black currant juice, black/purple carrot juice, blueberry juice, carrot juice, cherry juice, chokeberry juice, elderberry juice, grape juice, grape skin extract, paprika, pumpkin juice, purple potato juice, red cabbage extract, saffron extract, turmeric extract
- Dillweed Oil
- Fish Oil
- Fortified Cooking Wines
- Galangal, frozen
- Gums: arabic, guar, locust bean, carob
- Inulin-oligofructose enriched
- Konjac Flour
- Orange Pulp
- Orange Shellac - unbleached
- Peppers - Chipotle
- Seaweed, Pacific Kombu
- Starches: cornstarch, rice starch, sweet potato starch
- Tragacanth gum
- Turkish Bay Leaves
- Wakame Seaweed
- Whey Protein Concentrate
Here's what bothers me most about this list: Many of the non-organic ingredients allowed in organic food labeling have an extremely high chance of being GMOs (genetically modified organisms), such as cornstarch (about 88% of all corn is GMO). The milk and meat based ingredients carry a risk of antibiotics or hormones. And of all these it seems that Federal regulations are completely ignoring one factor: Those of us who choose organic food do so because we believe in the values behind it. We want to have no part in contaminating soil (even if it's not soil for food production) or harming ecosystems. We seek out alternatives because they align with our values and we want to support the businesses who feel the same. Compromising our values, even 5% of our values, is still unethical and unnecessary.
So what can you do about it?
For starters, buy organic, whole foods...foods that ARE ingredients, not foods that HAVE ingredients. When you're craving a snack, and want something more than fruit and veggies, find out how you can make something homemade. Support local farms, especially those who practice permaculture concepts, and get to know your farmer. Ask where they compromise on their land and why (don't be a jerk about it; be authentically curious about the struggles the farmer might face in keeping things organic and non-toxic around the farm).
Lastly, stay connected to the organic food movement so that you can lend your voice and your vote whenever it's needed. I recommend subscribing to Organic Consumers to stay up-to-date and involved, and donate to their cause whenever you can. A few dollars can go a long way for organizations like these.
Interested in Affordable, Healthy Food?
I'm extremely proud to present to you the Sustainable Baby Steps guides, helping you delve into the topic of making organic food affordable and simple with easy-to-digest, step-by-step information, inspiration, and tools to help you live green and healthy. Sweet, right?