When Is Organic Food Really Organic?

woman reading organic label product | PBFY

Organic products have been experiencing a great sales period in the United States, starting from as far back as early 2018.

While 2017 saw regular increments in sales from products branded with an ‘organic’ label, 2018 was an even bigger success story, drawing in more than $21 billion by November 2018, according to data analyst service Nielsen Homescan. That’s almost a 9% increase in sales from 2017.

It all goes to show how important healthy eating has become among people today, and how it’s now more than just a passing fad.

On a specific scale, some organic products stood out more than the other. The healthy superfood kombucha, itself already a major presence in many healthy recipes and the subject of much praise from nutrition blogs and magazines, was marked the most bought, with total sales as of December 1, 2018, coming in at an astonishing $412 million, according to Nielsen Retail Measurement Services.

Kombucha must have worked outstandingly for people as part of diets everywhere because that figure is a 41.9% increase from 2017’s total sales for the same period. Other organic products proved how enduring their popularity was, such as chicken eggs, whose seemingly small 6.9% increase in sales from 2017 translated to a whopping $814 million.

Sandwich bread, fresh chicken and baby food were the other individual top performers, while pre-packed salads rolled in as the overall top-selling category of organic foods throughout 2018 with sales above $1.1 million.

Nevertheless, some organic foods suffered, especially organic milk. In addition to unwavering competition from processed milk and despite its promises to customers of furthering a healthy eating lifestyle, organic milk was troubled by its higher prices (organic milk is on average 84% more expensive than processed milk alternatives, according to Food Industry Executive) and a seemingly less-than-impressed buying public. Only almond milk saw a 23.3% increase in sales, while soy milk, cow’s milk and lactose-free milk saw downward sales tics instead.

Still, there remains no doubt that organic foods are here to stay, and that consumers have gradually warmed up to them. As regards buyer groups, data from the Nielsen Homescan showed that it was mostly millennials and Hispanic pushing the sales growth seen between 2017 and 2018 for organic foods.

Hispanics contributed over 13.4% of the sales while millennials, already noted for their obsession over healthy eating and new ways of living, pushed farther with 13.8%. These specific buyer groups remain the most targeted for the coming year, and experts believe the sales figures will be higher come 2019.

The sky is the limit now for foods marked with an organic label, because even food industry analysts, such as the team behind the 2018 Whole Food Trends Report believe that plant-based organic foods are going to win over 2019.

 Understanding the USDA Organic Food Certification Levels

The United States Department of Agriculture has always played watchdog over how and what is produced from farms all over America, how they are sold, their processing methods and how they are marketed to the masses. One of its main responsibilities is to protect consumers from bad products, the kinds that are poorly grown, haphazardly processed, or wrongly advertised.

As part of that mandate, and as guided by the constitution of the United States, the United States Department of Agriculture is also in charge of identifying which products are organic and which aren’t, and for offering certification to verified products in the form of an ‘organic label’ that can be used in informative and promotional advertising.

A food product is considered organic by the USDA if it was, according to the USDA website, “grown on soil that had no prohibited substances applied for three years prior to harvest.” Those prohibited substances include pesticides, hormones and fertilizers, except in special cases. In other words, organic farmers and producers everywhere have to rely on entirely natural farming practices to have their crop considered.

For meat to be considered organic, the animals must have been fully raised within or in situations similar to their natural habitats, such as pasturelands for grazing, and never been treated with hormones or drugs like antibiotics.

The standards go even higher for processed foods looking for organic certification. Gaining the organic label requires that the food product have no artificial flavors, colors, or preservatives used, in addition to having only fully organic base ingredients (with a few exceptions).

The Different USDA Organic Labels

For any consumer looking for organic foods, the surest way to make a legitimate choice is by looking for the USDA organic label on the product’s packaging.

But as with many things in life, no one size fits all when it comes to classifying organic products from their non-organic counterparts. Even the USDA knows this and hence has various classifications for various organic products seeking the organic label. As a customer, it’s important that you understand these different classifications and how they appear on the product packaging.

Currently, the USDA maintains four levels for its organic certification system under which different products are listed judging by a few factors. They include:

100% Organic – It means that all ingredients used, growing methods and processing aids are 100% certified organic, all ingredients are featured on the List of Allowed and Prohibited Substances, has no GMOs, requires certification from USDA, can use the USDA’ organic’ label.

Organic – Organic means that all ingredients used and processing aids are at least 95% certified organic, all non-organic ingredients are in compliance with the National List of Allowed and Prohibited Substances, No GMOs used, requires certification from USDA, can also use the USDA’ organic’ label.

Made with organic ingredients – it means only some (less than 70%) of the ingredients used are certified organic, must specify which of the ingredients used are actually organic, uses no GMOs, the non-organic ingredients must comply with the National List of Allowed and Prohibited Substances, requires certification from USDA, cannot use the USDA’ organic’ label.

Made with specific organic ingredients – Here, most of its ingredients aren’t organic at all, may contain GMOs, ingredients do not need to comply with National List of Allowed and Prohibited Substances, does not require certification from the USDA, cannot use the USDA’ organic’ label.

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