As the video above demonstrates, misleading organic labeling is still a major problem, even at some of the most trusted organic food stores, such as Whole Foods Market. The signs say “Organic,” but the produce sometimes turn out to be anything but.
Just like organic shopper Richard Andree in this video, you too must take the initiative to double-check the veracity of your grocery store’s organic claims, or else you might not get what you pay for.
Trust… and Verify!
Many people would never question a store like Whole Foods, but it’s important to remember that although their company values may be higher than some others, Whole Foods is an "industrial organic" company, with more than 270 stores throughout North America, Hawaii, and the UK, and will operate as such.
Their focus is no longer being a distribution center for locally-grown organics. You’re just as likely to find imported asparagus from Argentina as you are finding a locally-grown seasonal crop. Aside from nullifying the environmental benefits of locally grown organics, are those “organic” veggies from the other side of the world truly organic?
Beware that there’s a 50/50 chance they do not meet the American USDA organic standards.
It’s easy to become discouraged with the entire business of organics, and begin to fret about ever being able to get your hands on truly healthy food. But as I said the other day in "Buying Local Should Include Buying Organic," the ground rules for healthy food shopping have never changed, merely the labels.
And many of Whole Foods’ canned or boxed items contain ingredients most health conscious shoppers would not expect to see, like high fructose corn syrup (which is a major source of genetically modified corn, and the number one source of calories in the US diet) and MSG (a neurotoxin. For a great resource on how to find hidden MSG, please see the website www.MSGMYTH.com for detailed listings.)
Whole Foods is clearly a superior source of wholesome foods than most grocery stores,and I regularly shop there. However, they are still a Fortune 500 Company that owes its allegiance to its shareholders, so blind trust is not advised.
Remember that only about 30 percent of their fresh produce comes from local producers, and they DO carry conventional produce and other conventional food items as well. So label checking is perhaps even more important here, since local and imported organics, along with conventional goods, are freely intermingled throughout the store.
The Organic Label
There are a few different organic labels out there, but only one relates directly to foods: the USDA Organic seal.
This seal is one of your best commercial assurances of organic quality, so when in doubt: if it doesn’t carry the USDA Organic seal, you might not be getting what you’re paying for.
Growers and manufacturers of organic products bearing the USDA seal have to meet the strictest standards of any of the currently available organic labels.
The USDA's National Organic Program (NOP) took effect October 21, 2002, and regulates the standards for any farm, wild crop harvesting, or handling operation that wants to sell an agricultural product as organically produced.
The labeling requirements of the NOP apply to raw, fresh products and processed products that contain organic agricultural ingredients. In order to qualify as organic, a product must be grown and processed using organic farming methods that recycle resources and promote biodiversity.
Crops CANNOT be grown with any of the following:
- Synthetic pesticides
- Bioengineered genes
- Petroleum-based fertilizers
- Sewage sludge-based fertilizers
Organic livestock must have access to the outdoors and cannot be given antibiotics or growth hormones.
Organic products cannot be irradiated, are not allowed to contain preservatives or flavor enhancing chemicals, nor can they contain traces of heavy metals or other contaminants in excess of tolerances set by the FDA.
The pesticide residue level cannot be higher than 5 percent of the maximum EPA pesticide tolerance.
For the complete National List of Allowed and Prohibited Substances under the USDA organic label, see this link.
How to Prioritize Your Spending on Organics
With every food manufacturer jumping on the organic bandwagon and all the shenanigans going on, you can easily overspend on mislabeled, or downright fraudulent, organic purchases.
Here are some tips on how to prioritize your spending, so you know you’re getting the most bang for your buck:
Meats and Poultry – If you’re on a tight budget, but want to improve your diet by shopping organic, this is definitely where you’ll want to start.
Since animal products tend to bioaccumulate toxins, concentrating them to far higher concentrations than are typically present in vegetables, I strongly recommend you buy only organically-raised meats.
When choosing organic beef, taking the additional step to make certain the cows are grass-fed exclusively, especially the three months before they are slaughtered, can make a big difference in the quality, taste, and nutrient content of the beef.
For chickens, it would be important to make sure they are cage-free, or free-range, chickens.
Fresh produce – When it comes to produce, if you can’t find the best of both worlds, which is locally-grown organics, then buying fresh, vibrant locally grown conventional produce may actually be better than wilted organics. However, it can be tricky, since some conventionally grown produce simply LOOKS fresher due to all the chemicals they’ve been treated with.
Perhaps your best bet, if you can’t find locally grown organics, is to opt for USDA certified organic, but not imported organic, over the conventionally grown variety.
Just be aware that wilted organic produce is not going to provide the nutrition that a fresh one will, even if it’s conventionally grown.
That said, organic produce has been shown to have a much higher nutrient-content than conventional fresh produce, which should offer plenty of incentive to locate organic produce that has also been grown locally. On average, conventional produce has only 83 percent of the nutrients of organic produce.
Personal care products – A good rule of thumb is that if it’s not safe to eat, it’s not safe to put on your skin either, since the ingredients are absorbed directly into your blood stream.
One of the best sources for finding safe personal care products is the Organic Consumer’s Association’s Skin Deep database.
Also remember that the only way to ensure your personal care product is truly organic is to look for the USDA Organic seal, which certifies that it complies with organic food standards and is free of petrochemicals.
Pay Now, or Pay Later…
My personal view of why you’d want an organic lifestyle is that although you may spend more money on organic food and personal care products today, your payoff of good health should more than make up for it – and reduce your health care costs in the future.
It makes sense to me to invest a little bit more now so I can avoid paying LARGE medical bills later on, but more importantly, I can avoid the physical and mental disability and dysfunction that inevitably follows from a careless, unhealthy lifestyle.
Making sure you’re not being misled by labels in your search for a healthier lifestyle is unfortunately part of this process. However, by educating yourself about what to look for, talking to your grocer, and sharing information with family, friends and neighbors, you can help the movement toward healthier food choices and honest labeling.