What is Organic? A Guide to Food Labels

(Updated: April 21, 2021)

There are a whole bunch of buzzwords surrounding food right now. Between non-GMO, organic, pasture-raised, natural, sustainable, local, and more, the labels can be pretty confusing. Here at Half Hectare Homestead, we remove a significant amount of guesswork by growing as much of our own food as possible. We also forage what is growing wild around us in safe, non-contaminated, natural areas. Still, understanding all of the labels out there and what they mean is a very useful tool when purchasing food.

Picture of a long curvy organic purple sweet potato sitting in a short  drinking glass on a windowsill with it's bottom submerged in water. The water submerged part of the sweet potato has multiple green sprouts with small leaves growing up out of the water with many white roots growing down towards the bottom of the glass.
An organic purple sweet potato we bought at the grocery store. We are sprouting it for planting. This will then give us the ability to continue growing more!

In honor of Earth Day, this blog is to help guide you to use your buying power for sustainability. What we buy represents our vote for what we want. At least, for those of us not living in a food desert and not suffering from systemic poverty; those of us who have the privileges and available options to choose what we buy. It’s one of the few ways we individuals can help influence the capitalist economy we currently live in to become more sustainable. Those of us who can be ethical consumers should use our privileges to create change that betters the health of our entire world community (Nature included). Here is some helpful info to assist those of you who are aware, awakening, or just wanting to take some simple first steps in promoting your own health.

What Does Organic Mean?

Organic, in principle, refers to something not made with artificial agents. Artificial agents such as pesticides, herbicides, genetically modified organisms (GMO), contaminated soil, antibiotics, growth hormones, etc. The USDA requires anyone labeling their products as organic for sale to go through an expensive and lengthy certification process.

Picture of a wicker basket sitting on a bed of grass holding a full harvest of small organic and non-GMO pinkish-red rose flowers and leaves, which are naturally edible and medicinal, because they are free from the toxic pesticides/herbicides used with most conventionally grown roses.
Rose petals are naturally edible and medicinal. But most are conventionally grown sprayed with heavy pesticides making them unsafe to consume. However, organically grown roses, such as these pictured above, are not dowsed with poisons. Therefore they can be safely harvested for culinary and medicinal uses.

There is an ongoing debate as to the exact value of organic food products. Some sides state that there is no difference in the value between organic and conventional food. However, research has started demonstrating that there is a difference in nutritional value. Unfortunately, there are a lot of uncontrollable factors in these studies, so no one wants to make definitive statements.

As for Cristophe and me, we’ve gone fully organic, and we can certainly tell the difference. We find that organic food is much more filling and nourishing than conventional food. It has also significantly improved our health. We never even realized how sluggish, foggy, and painful our lives were before, until we were finally able to experience healthy life! The flavor increase has also been mind-blowing. I grew-up thinking I hated certain fruits and vegetables. But they only tasted terrible to me because they were grown conventionally. I love the organic ones! Eating all-organic coupled with finally being able to pin-point our dietary intolerances has raised our quality of life exponentially on all wellness levels.

Don’t Fall For Misleading Labels!

There are a lot of misleading labels used for greenwashing out there. Companies use these to make consumers feel as though they are making a better choice. When in fact, these labels are unregulated or have extremely low and inadequate requirements. One example is the term “natural” in food labeling, which does not have a formal definition from the FDA.

Another potentially misleading label in the grocery store is “Made with organic [placeholder]”. In this case, the product must be only at least 70 percent organic. This label fools a lot of people into thinking they are buying something fully organic. Closely reading all labels really does matter!

Tricky Poultry Labels

The USDA regulates “Cage-free” labeled products. But it only means that the birds are not kept in actual cages. They live in crowded enclosed buildings with poor air-quality and no outdoor access instead. The USDA also regulates “Free-range” labeled products. But again, has poor standards. The birds under this label also live in just as bad of an enclosed building. The only difference is that this building has to have a door with the ability to open at some point, if ever. The door also only has to open into a small fenced-in area. “Pasture-raised” is now the gold standard. But the USDA does not yet regulate this label. So this standard is only trustworthy when the label is accompanied by a “Certified Humane” and/or “Animal Welfare Approved” label.

Grass/Forage Fed and Finished

For red meat labels, “Grass/Forage Fed” is important in that ruminant animals, such as cows, sheep, and bison, are not healthy when fed grains. Their natural food sources are grasses and other leafy matter. Their bodies are not able to properly digest grains, which is the cheap feed big agriculture raises them on. Grain fed ruminant animals are much more prone to illness and are improperly nourished. Meaning that their products are just as poor for your health as a consumer.

The USDA Grass/Forage Fed standard guarantees that the animals were fed their natural healthy food source for the majority of their life. However, they can still have this certification even if they were fed grains for a short period of time right before being culled. Some farmers do this in order to quickly fatten the animals up for more profit. This actually throws off the Omega-3/Omega-6 ratio in their meat, which makes it just as unhealthy to consume as grain-fed. So look for “Grass/Forage Fed and Grass/Forage Finished” labeling.

The Growing Need for More Than Just Organic Labels

Unfortunately, The USDA Certified Organic label does not uphold the same standards it used to. The first small-businesses to gain the organic labeling believed in supporting the growth of cleaner, healthier, and more sustainable food. But then the demands for organic products rose. Larger companies noticed they were losing out by not selling under the organic label. So instead of changing their processes to fit the standards of the label, they began lobbying for the standards to be changed into what was easier for them. Therefore, bought-out politicians have begun chipping away at the requirements for this label. A suspected lax on the frequency and thoroughness of facility inspections has already raised some concerns. These inspections insure each involved location continues to adhere to the organic protocols even after its overruling multinational corporation has received organic certification.

Lobbyists have also halted significant improvements to the standards. Most recently noticeable was when the Trump administration purposefully delayed and then killed the Organic Livestock and Poultry Practices (OLPP). These new rules were to better outline the expected high standards of humane animal welfare under the organic label. With OLPP nullified, the animals behind organic labeled products can be treated virtually no better than the factory farmed animals in conventional big agriculture practices. Thus facilitating the need for even better labels.

Other Important Labels to Look For

Organic labeling on animal products is still important in promoting your own health as a consumer. Animals under this label feed on organic feed only. They also live free from hormones and unnecessary antibiotics. But truly healthy animal products come from truly healthy animals. And true health in all animals requires a well-balanced, low-stress, and happy life. We have experienced this multiple times over when noting the much higher quality of animal products from our own lovingly raised and humanely culled animals. Labels administered by third-party groups which require such high quality treatment of animals are highly important as well. “Certified Humane” and “Animal Welfare Approved” are examples of such labels.

Picture of a plate covered with pink juicy shrimp, medium-rare cooked steak, stir fried garlic and broccoli, sautéed mushrooms, and an open baked potato topped with sour cream and slices of green onion. All ingredients meeting our ethical consumer standards.
My recent organic and non-GMO birthday dinner. Made with sustainably sourced and local shrimp, humane grass-fed and grass-finished beef, and Forager Project‘s (brand not affiliated with HHH) vegan, gluten-free, soy-free, synthetic sugar-free, and synthetic salt-free (all to avoid our food intolerances) sour cream. Organic and ethically sourced foods benefit your health, taste-buds, and the environment!

I could probably fill a whole other blog with detailed information on sustainable seafood. So for now, I will just mention the Marine Stewardship Council (MSC). They launched their sustainable seafood finder mobile app back in 2012. The database for the app updates daily. It gives you the most current list of sustainable seafood products, and we have greatly appreciated the availability of its info multiple times in the past.

On The Organic Plant Side

For plant products, “Non-GMO Project Verified” is a great label to see coupled with an organic one. The Non-GMO Project runs rigorous third-party verifications in securing Genetically Modified Organism (GMO) avoidance within food and other products. (For facts about GMOs and why we actively avoid them click here.)

Some labels to look for on sustainably sourced products are “Cradle to Cradle”, “Rainforest Alliance Certified”, “Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO) Certified”, and “Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) Certified”. Sustainability is a growing topic and something that needs attention. The cultivation of certain large-scale agriculture products that are in high demand are rapidly increasing deforestation and extinctions of both animal and plant species. These processes are also major contributors to the wide-spread use of chemical herbicides and pesticides. Some of these particular plant products are palm oil, cane sugar, cacao (chocolate), coffee bean, and tea. They are so bad, that if you can’t find a sustainably certified and trusted source, I highly recommend you just buy products without these ingredients until you can. These destructive practices are not only disastrous on an environmental scale, but on a humanitarian scale too.

Important Humanitarian Labels

This is where labels such as the “Fair Trade Certified“, Fair Trade Foundation”, “World Fair Trade Organization”, “Equal Exchange Fairly Traded”, and “fair for life” come in handy. These labels verify that the farmers behind such products are being paid fair wages. This is to combat the problems of poverty, gender inequality, child labor, and forced labor growing in such environmentally destructive agricultural industries around the world. Fair wages give the farmers the ability to invest in the positive growth and protection of their communities. This then gives the whole community the ability to improve their relationship with nature and the rest of the world.

Picture of the front of a bag of double dark chocolate honey patties with the Heavenly Organics (brand not affiliated with HHH) colorful logo and multiple ethical labels on it, including the "Non-GMO Project Verified", "USDA Organic", and "fair for life" labels.
A very tasty product we just recently discovered of Heavenly Organics (brand not affiliated with HHH). The back of the bag contains info about their sustainable and humane cacao and honey harvesting practices. As the front shows, they are also approved to display the “Non-GMO Project Verified”, “USDA Organic”, and “fair for life” labels, among a few others.

Locally sourced labeling means that the product didn’t have to travel as far to get to you. This means less preservatives used (even naturally sourced preservatives can have negative effects on your microbiome) and less pollution caused by it’s shipment. “Local” labels are not a substitute for “Organic” however, because local farmers can still use plenty of unwanted pesticides and herbicides on their products. It is best to find both labels on a product. Or, better yet, learn from the local farmer yourself about their farming practices! A lot of small-business farmers can’t afford the hefty prices of gaining official certification, but they may still be growing/raising organically and sustainably anyway. Give them a chance to gain your support and help boost your local economy!

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