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All You Need to Know about Organic Food

"Going natural"
By: Gwen Y. Reyes-Amurao, M.D.All You Need to Know about Organic Food

By definition, organic food is produced by methods that comply with the standards of organic farming. According to the US Department of Agriculture, organic standards farms and ranches must follow a strict set of guidelines. A third-party certifier inspects these places annually to make sure that very strict standards are met. For livestock, the following are important guidelines:

  • Must be raised organically on certified organic land
  • Must be fed certified organic feed
  • No antibiotics or added growth hormones are allowed
  • Must have outdoor access
  • Must be raised using techniques that protect the native species and other natural resources; irradiation and genetic engineering are not allowed with organic animal production

What do you mean by certified organic?

Produce is termed certified organic if it has grown on soil that had no prohibited substances applied for at least three years prior to harvest. Prohibited substances include synthetic fertilizers and pesticides. Because countries all over the world have varying guidelines for certification, the USDA came up with a list of how to differentiate one organic product from another.

  • If a product is labelled organic, products must consist of at least 95% organically produced ingredients, with the remaining 5% being attributed to USDA-approved non-organic substances.
  • If a product is labelled made with organic ingredients, processed food products must contain at least 70% organic ingredients.
  •  For a product to be labelled 100% organic, ingredients must all be certified organic that have gone through approved processing methods.

Are organic and natural produce the same?

No they are not. Only food that is grown and processed according to the certifying board of organic producers can be considered organic. Natural may mean a number of things but should not be mistaken for organic. Below is a list of certain labels used in classifying produce according to the US Department of Agriculture.

  • Natural or all natural – This label means “minimally processed” and that the meat can’t have any artificial colors, artificial flavors, preservatives, or any other artificial ingredients in it. Animals can still be given antibiotics or growth enhancers and meat can be injected with salt, water, and other ingredients.
  • Naturally raised – This claim should be followed by a specific statement, such as “naturally raised without antibiotics or growth hormones” in order to obtain USDA approval.
  • Grass-fed – This term claims that the animals are fed solely on a diet of grass or hay and have continuous access to the outdoors. Cattle are naturally ruminants that eat grass, so they tend to be healthier and leaner when fed this way. In addition, grass fed beef has been shown to have more of the healthy omega-3 fatty acids. However, if meat is labeled as grass fed but not certified organic.
  • Free-range – Broadly, this term means that the animals weren’t confined to a cage and had access to the outdoors. Unfortunately, there are no requirements for the amount of time the animals spend outdoors or for the size of the outdoor space available.
  • Cage-free – The term means that egg-laying hens are not raised in cages. However, it does not necessarily mean they have access to the outdoors.
  • Pasture-raised – This claims that the animals were not raised in confinement and had year-round access to the outside.
  • No hormones added or hormone-free – This term indicates that animals are raised without the use of any added growth hormones. For beef and dairy products it can be helpful, but by law in the U.S., poultry, and pigs cannot be given hormones, so don’t pay extra for chicken, veal, or pork products that use this label.
  • Certified Humane Raised and Handled – This is a voluntary certification regulated by the Humane Farm Animal Care, a non-profit organization aimed at ensuring the humane treatment of farm animals. The label means that animals have ample space, shelter, and gentle handling to limit stress, ample fresh water, and a diet without added antibiotics or hormones. Animals must be able to roam around and root without ever being confined to cages, crates, or tie stalls.

Why should I choose organic products?

People often choose organic because they feel these products are healthier than their non-organic counterparts. In general, since organic produce have not been given synthetic fertilizers, antibiotics, hormones or any chemical for that matter, they may be considered so. The fact that they contain no food additives and other ingredients compared to our daily non-organic food, makes for healthier options as well. In a study done by the British Journal of Nutrition, they found out that organic produce had 17% more polyphenols. These are micronutrients in our diet that have been studied and proven to play a strong role in the prevention of degenerative diseases such as cancer and cardiovascular problems.

A common assumption people often make is that once products are branded organic, they are immediately seen as healthy. It is important to note that organic food does not equal to low in sugar, calories or fat. For example, organic cookies and chips are already available in the market. It does not mean though that they can be considered healthy. Make it a practice to read food labels and read them carefully.

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