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Is your organic food really organic?

Diana De Cicco is a food editor and writer based in New York City. She has a master's degree from New York University in Food Studies. Her passions are eating, traveling, and eating while traveling.

Defining organic

The word -œorganic- seems to be the new catch phrase, from grocery stores to media to everyday conversations. The organic label is ubiquitous - on every food from produce to meats to the snack foods you buy. But is that more expensive -œorganic- brand really organic and, if so, is it actually eco-friendly and healthier?

Woman shopping for organic food.

Questioning Organic

Do you remember the days when you would walk through the produce aisle and wonder what vegetable or fruit you should buy? What about when you would stroll the cereal, bread or snack aisles and your biggest decision was simply choosing the brand or flavor you happened to be craving?

Now, you are faced with an even bigger question. Do you buy the regular foods or do you buy their organic counterparts? For instance, if you love raisin bran, do you purchase the organic box or the kind you always buy? The ingredients on the sides of both boxes are the same 17 ingredients. But, six of the ingredients on the organic box are preceded by the word "organic."

The biggest difference is that the organic raisin bran is, on average, $3 per pound more expensive. The economically smarter choice would be to buy the regular cereal but then you are left wondering if you made the best choice for your health and the environment.

WHAT EXACTLY DOES ORGANIC MEAN?

The first step to choosing organic or non-organic is discovering exactly what organic means.

The true definition of organic is foods or farming methods, produced or involving production without the use of chemical fertilizers, pesticides or other artificial agents.

The National Organic Program (NOP) definition of organic food, is as follows: "Organic food is produced by farmers who emphasize the use of renewable resources and the conservation of soil and water to enhance environmental quality for future generations. Organic meat, poultry, eggs and dairy products come from animals that are given no antibiotics or growth hormones. Organic food is produced without using most conventional pesticides; fertilizers made with synthetics ingredients or sewage sludge; bioengineering; or ionizing radiation. Before a product can be labeled "organic," a Government-approved certifier inspects the farm where the food is grown to make sure the farmer is following all the rules necessary to meet USDA organic standards. Companies that handle or process organic food before it gets to your local supermarket or restaurant must be certified, too."

There are two categories of organic food used to further identify the differences: pastoral organic (food grown and purchased locally) and industrial organic (food grown and purchased from around the world).

This can be confusing to the consumer who just wants to know what to eat!

INDUSTRIAL ORGANIC VERSUS PASTORAL ORGANIC

There are both advantages and disadvantages to buying industrial and pastoral organic food.

Cost: The first and most important advantage for purchasing industrial organic food for consumers is cost. For example, a typical pastoral organic apple from a farmer's market costs about $2.39 per pound whereas a typical industrial organic apple from the supermarket costs about $1.50 per pound.

Variety and availability: The second benefit of industrial organic food is variety and availability. Since industrial organic food is produced on a large scale and is not restricted to seasonal changes because of global transportation, most fruits and vegetables are readily available during any season.

Use of fossil fuel: One advantage of pastoral organic food is that production and transportation use almost no fossil fuels. On the farm alone, industrial organic food uses 35 gallons of oil to raise a single corn-fed cow. However, this is only one-fifth of the total fossil fuel consumed during production of industrial organic food. The remaining fossil fuel is used in processing and transportation of organic products around the world.

Freshness of products: Another advantage of pastoral organic food is the freshness of products. Most likely, the fruit and vegetables have been just recently picked and were never frozen.

WHAT IS THE BEST CHOICE?

Making the right choice depends on what you, the consumer, is seeking.

Not all organics are created equal. Despite the cost savings and variety, purchasing industrial organic food from large manufacturers such as Kellogg's or Kraft is not necessarily the better choice. Often, only parts of the ingredients are organic, such as the flour or wheat, but the rest of the ingredients are the same as in non-organic foods.

Buying local may be the best choice. In most cases, the best choice is purchasing food from your local farmer or farmers market. If that is not an option, then choose food that has traveled the least amount of miles. For example, if you live in California and your choices are a regular apple from Washington or an organic apple from Venezuela, then the regular apple is better because it traveled less, thus using less fossil fuels.

Read the labels. Some organic foods that claim to be organic may have some loopholes – look at the ingredients to determine the extent of their organic or naturalness In addition, many supermarkets and grocers are beginning to label fresh produce, indicating where it comes from, so you can make knowledgeable choices. If you don't know where a product originates, ask your grocer. And be aware that more expensive does not always mean better. Always look at the ingredients, the packaging and where a product was produced.

Organic does not always mean 100 percent organic, but the more knowledgeable you are about the foods you buy, the more capable you are of making the healthiest and most eco-friendly decisions.

For more information on organics, visit these links:
What is slow food?
Is organic food healthier or just more expensive?
How to buy organic foods for children
Organic and all-natural beauty products

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