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Organic, cage-free, grass-fed, all natural... What's the difference?

February 26, 2013

What does “organic food” mean?

The USDA defines the word “organic” as:

“A labeling term that indicates that the food or other agricultural product has been produced through approved methods that integrate cultural, biological, and mechanical practices that foster cycling of resources, promote ecological balance, and conserve biodiversity. Synthetic fertilizers, sewage sludge, irradiation, and genetic engineering may not be used."

In a nutshell, organic farmers use natural fertilizers (i.e. manure or compost), pesticides from natural resources, and environmentally-generated plant-killing compounds to manage pests, diseases and weeds. Crops are also rotated, tilled, hand weeded, or mulched. Animals are served organic feed, allowed access to the outdoors, and preventive measures are used to help minimize disease instead of antibiotics, growth hormones and medications.

It's all in the labeling

The National Organic Program (NOP) is a regulatory program within the U.S. Department ofAgriculture (USDA) Agricultural Marketing Service to ensure the integrity of USDA organic products in the U.S. and throughout the world. Any product labeled as “organic” must be USDA certified. The seal is voluntary, but many organic producers use it. Products certified 95% or more organic can display this USDA seal.
  • 100% Organic: Product must be completely organic or made of all organic ingredients.
  • Organic: Product must be at least 95% organic. Non-organic ingredients allowed per National List may be used, up to a combined total of 5% of non-organic content.
  • Made with Organic Ingredients: Product must contain at least 70% organic ingredients. Label may state “made with organic (insert up to three ingredients or ingredient categories)”, but muse not bear the USDA organic seal.
  • Products containing less than 70% organic ingredients do not need to be certified. However, these products cannot use the seal or the word “organic” on the display panel. They may only list certified organic ingredients as organic in the ingredient list.
There are other terms you see often, including "natural", "free range", and "hormone free" - these terms should be truthful, but are not the same as organic. It's important to have an idea of these meanings to not only know what you're eating but to also save some money at the grocery store. Here's a breakdown:
  • Cage-Free or Free-Range: Products stamped with “cage-free” or “free-range” means that the animals are given more freedom to move around, cage-free. “Cage-free” is used mostly for eggs, while “free-range” can include other livestock, such as cows, chickens and pigs. However, there's no governmental certification to guarantee that the products labeled this way is indeed from humanely-treated, free-roaming animals, as the label implies. Some studies find that there's not much difference in nutrition between these specialty eggs and conventional ones and research suggests eggs from caged and cage-free animals contain similar amounts of bacteria.
  • Grass-Fed: While there's no USDA stamp of approval for products labeled "grass-fed", the best definition of a grass-fed animal is one that has eaten nothing but mom's milk, fresh grass, and hay. Look for products with an American Grassfed Association or Animal Welfare Approved stamp, which guarantee the animal was raised on a family-owned pasture or range. However, the jury is out on the possible related health benefits: Some studies show there's no real health advantage of grass-fed beef, while others have found grass-fed beef to contain higher levels of healthy fatty acids and antioxidants.
  • Hormone-Free and Antibiotic-Free: Hormone-filled meat has been linked to several health concerns including prenatal developmental problems to early puberty, infertility and certain types of cancers. The USDA Organic seal assures no hormones or antibiotics were used in the organic meat, but much like "free-range", there are no restrictions regarding the use of the term "hormone-free" or "antibiotic-free." Your best bet selecting meat is to look for the USDA Organic seal.
  • Natural or All-Natural: The term “natural” may be the most dubious of all — there's no governmental regulation from the FDA or USDA for using the word on labels. “Natural” is a loose term for foods without synthetic preservatives, artificial sweeteners, and other additives. The only time the word “natural” is regulated is when it comes to meat, which requires the product have no preservatives and minimal processing.
  • Multigrain and Whole Grain: We've all been told whole-wheat is healthier than white, but what about all those breads touting the "multigrain" label? Multigrain products are made with more than one type of grain. However, these grains are typically the refined kind, meaning they've been stripped of the healthiest parts of the grain (the bran and germ), and are not any healthier than plain ol' white bread. In fact, dyes are often added to multigrain products to make them look healthier (or like whole-grain products). Whole-grain items, on the other hand, are made from, well, whole grains. This means they contain all the natural nutrients in grains and have not been refined (aka stripped of the healthy stuff!). Opt for whole-grain over multigrain for the healthiest choice!

Is it worth the cost?

Organic foods are typically more expensive than their conventional counterparts, partly due to more costly farming practices. Organic produce also tends to spoil quicker as they are not treated with waxes or preservatives.

A recent study of scientific articles over the past 50 years concluded that organically and conventionally produced foodstuffs are comparable in their nutrient content. Research in this area is ongoing.

Helpful Hints

  • Buy only what you need for the next few days to avoid throwing money down the drain.
  • Buy local! Reducing transport time and distance can help limit the chances of contamination and bacterial growth.
  • Wash and scrub fresh fruits & vegetables thoroughly under running water to help remove dirt, bacteria and traces of chemicals from the surface.
  • The Environmental Working Group's (EWG) Shopper's Guide to Pesticides™ helps clarify which fruits & vegetables have the most pesticide residues. The Dirty Dozen™ lists the top twelve fruits & vegetables that should be bought as organic due to the pesticide content of their conventional counterparts. This list can be downloaded from the EWG's website. .
Always remember: Health benefits of a diet rich in fruits & vegetables outweigh the risks of pesticide exposure.

For more information regarding organic foods & labeling, please visit the USDA's website