Article Date: 5/1/2012

Beyond BCVA: Thorough Vision Assessment For Retinal Physicians
nutrition

Understanding the Organic Label

What are you really getting when you purchase certified products?

Kimberly K. Reed, O.D., F.A.A.O.

What exactly are you paying for when you buy organic food? What does that “all natural” label really mean? If a product is imported, does its “organic” label mean the same thing as the U.S. “organic” label?

One of these questions will soon be easier to answer, as the United States and the European Union recently agreed to recognize each other's organic certification standards. With this announcement, it seems like a good time to decipher the meaning of “organic” and other food labels.

First, many people associate “organic” with agricultural products that haven't been treated with synthetic fertilizers, but there's more involved than this one restriction. Sewage sludge, eradiation and genetic engineering are also not permitted in organic foods. Philosophically, organic foods and products are those that have been produced through approved methods, integrating cultural, biological and mechanical practices. These practices take into account ecological balance and biodiversity and promote the cycling of resources. Organic food labeling is a function of the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) through the National Organic Program. (Visit www.ams.usda.gov/AMSv1.0/nop for more information.) More than 90 organic certification agencies operate internationally.

The USDA Organic seal is a strictly regulated label. If a product bears this seal, it is officially certified as organic, and at least 95% of the content of that food is organic. Some foods with the USDA Organic seal boast a “100% organic” label. These foods must be 100% organic, not including the water or salt used to process them. Foods that contain at least 70% organic ingredients are allowed to contain the label phrase “made with organic ingredients.”

Are organic foods always better?

Unfortunately, there is no easy or quick answer to this question. For example, organic meats can come from animals that have been pasture-fed, but may be supplemented with grain. Many nutrition experts strongly believe that certified “grass-fed” animals — who must receive the majority of their nutrients from grass throughout their life — are healthier than grain-fed animals. Animal products that are both organic and grass-fed are ideal, but they can be prohibitively expensive.

In general, organic produce probably contains few potentially harmful substances. Products with exposed soft flesh (strawberries, greens, etc.) are more vulnerable to those substances than are items with a firm outer rind or shell that is not typically eaten. So, many nutrition-minded folks are more likely to choose organic raspberries than they are organic grapefruit.

Free-range, cage-free and natural livestock

“Natural” meat, poultry and egg products must be minimally processed in a manner that does not fundamentally alter the product, and they must be devoid of artificial ingredients. But notice this label only applies to meat, poultry and eggs. This label does not apply to foods that don't contain these products, and further doesn't include references to any farm practices.

“Cage-free” flocks are able to freely roam a building, room or enclosed area with unlimited access to food and fresh water. To be designated as “free-range,” the flock must have continuous access to the outdoors, as well as unlimited access to food and water in a sheltered area.

“Pasture-raised” and “humane” are terms frequently used, but neither term is regulated by the USDA.

Another fairly notorious food term is “mechanically separated.” This refers to a pasty, batter-like animal product that is produced by forcing bones with attached edible meat under high pressure through a sieve to separate the bone from the edible meat tissue.

If you think this sounds rather unappetizing, you're not alone. Meats produced in this manner have been considered “inedible” since 2004. However, poultry and pork products are acceptable. To find out whether mechanically separated chicken or pork is in your child's chicken nugget or hotdog, take note: Food manufacturers are required to list ingredients on the food labels.

Hormones and antibiotics

You might notice on your package of chicken the notation “without added hormones.” Hormones are not allowed in poultry or hogs that are raised for consumption, and the label must explicitly state that fact. Beef suppliers, however, are still permitted to use hormones in their animals, so a beef label stating “hormone free” is meaningful if you are trying to avoid these substances in your foods. A label stating that red meat or poultry is “free of antibiotics” is significant, and it is permitted as long as the USDA has received documentation supporting an antibiotic-free life cycle.

All of this labeling information is in addition to the official “food label” that we typically associate with our foods — that is, the calories, fat grams, sugar content and other macro- and micro-nutrient information. But that's a whole other story, and the topic of a future column. OM

DR. REED IS AN ASSOCIATE PROFESSOR AT THE NOVA SOUTHEASTERN UNIVERSITY COLLEGE OF OPTOMETRY IN FORT LAUDERDALE, FLA., A MEMBER OF THE OCULAR NUTRITION SOCIETY AND AUTHOR OF NUMEROUS ARTICLES ON OCULAR NUTRITION, DISEASE AND PHARMACOLOGY, SHE IS ALSO A FREQUENT CONTINUING EDUCATION LECTURER. TO COMMENT ON THIS COLUMN, E-MAIL DR. REED AT KIM REED@NOVA.EDU.


Optometric Management, Volume: 47 , Issue: May 2012, page(s): 56 75