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Benefits of Natural and Organic Produce
Organic foods now occupy prominent shelf space in the produce and dairy aisles of most mainstream U.S. food retailers, while offerings of organic meats, eggs, breads, grains, and beverages have increased. The marketing boom has pushed retail sales of organic foods up to $21.1 billion in 2008 from $3.6 billion in 1997. Supermarkets, club stores, big-box stores, and other food retailers carry organic products, many retailers have introduced lines of organic private-label products, and manufacturers continue to introduce large numbers of new organic products.
Half of U.S. shoppers buy organic foods. The growing demand for foods that are healthful, tasty and environmentally friendly are the main drivers of organic food sales.
Organic foods are a key component in the major consumer trend known as whole health solutions — diets that promote health and well being, prevent disease, help cure illnesses and protect the environment. Retailers, suppliers and producers —natural and mainstream — are meeting this demand with new foods and organic alternatives to conventional products.
The National Organic Program (NOP) — implemented in 2002 by the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) — holds the industry to strict standards in the production and sale of such foods. Increased consumer demand and organic’s bottom-line appeal are convincing more retailers to add these foods to their mix. For the same reasons, food suppliers and producers are adding organic line extensions or converting to organic entirely.
The growing demand for foods that are healthful, tasty and environmentally friendly are the main drivers of organic food sales. Organic foods are now part of the mainstream food supply as fruits, vegetables, meats, poultry, eggs, canned goods, cereals and snack foods are flooding the store shelves.
During the past decade, sales of organic foods in the United States have grown 20 percent or more annually. Organic food and beverage sales are estimated to have reached $15 billion in 2004, having nearly tripled since 1997.
Based on consumer demand for organic food products, sales are projected to grow at an astonishing rate. So what makes food organic, and why are consumers buying them? Perhaps the biggest question of all: Are “organically produced” foods healthier than “conventionally produced/grown” foods?
What is Organic Food? The word organic refers to the way farmers grow, handle and process the foods we eat. Farmers who grow organic produce and meat don't use conventional methods to fertilize, control weeds or prevent livestock disease. Organic foods are grown and produced without the use of chemicals in favor of more earth-friendly practices.
The United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) has established an organic certification program that requires all foods labeled as organic to meet strict government standards. The standards prohibit the use of genetic engineering, ionizing radiation, and sewage sludge in organic food production and handling. Before a product can be labeled “organic,” the farm and processing plants must be inspected by a government-approved certifier.
There are two major categories of organic foods: fresh and processed.
Fresh organic foods include the common fruits and vegetables, and the less common meat, poultry, eggs, and dairy products. These foods are produced without using pesticides, fertilizers, antibiotics, or hormones.
Major food companies have also entered the organic food market with a variety of breakfast cereals, snack foods and canned products. Organic foods have grown out of the farmer’s markets and into the grocery store aisles.
All organic production and handling operations must be certified by third party organizations that have been accredited by the USDA.
What Does the Organic Food Label Promise the Consumer? The USDA organic seal is found on foods with at least 95% organic ingredients. You may not find the seal on every organic food, since the use of the seal is voluntary. Look for these terms on the package label when a food is labeled organic and bears the USDA organic seal:
“100% Organic”label indicates that every ingredient in the food is certified organic.
“Organic” means that at least ninety-five percent of the ingredients are certified organic.
Some foods contain organically produced ingredients, but not at a high enough percentage to qualify for the USDA organic seal. If a food contains at least 70% organic ingredients, the words “made with organic ingredients” can appear on the label, along with a list of up to three organic ingredients.
Foods containing less than 70% organic ingredients can't use the word “organic” on their product label or the USDA organic seal. They can include the organic items in their ingredient list.
Does “Natural” Equal “Organic?” No, the terms natural and organic are not equal. You may see other terms on food labels, such as all-natural, free-range, or hormone-free, but don't confuse them with the term “organic.” Only foods that are grown and processed according to USDA organic standards can be labeled “organic.”
Are Organic Foods Healthier? There is currently no scientific evidence that shows organic foods are safer, more nutritious, or healthier than conventionally grown food products. The Institute of Food Technologists (IFT), a nonprofit scientific society working in food science and technology, states that using organic foods are not one hundred percent free of pesticides or pathogens, and the practices used in conventional food production allow for an overall safe, healthy, and plentiful food supply.
The bottom line: both organic and conventional foods provide equal nutritional value in vitamins, minerals and antioxidants. Since there is no strong research on either side of the issue, it is important to choose a variety of foods, organic or conventional, that fit into a healthy lifestyle. Whether you choose organic foods or not, consider these tips:
- Buy fruits and vegetables in season to ensure the highest quality. Purchase your produce the day it is delivered to the grocery store to ensure freshness. Also, enjoy the abundant, fresh produce this season available from your own gardens, local farmer's markets, roadside stands and pick-your-own farms.
- Wash all fresh fruits and vegetables thoroughly with running water to reduce the amount of dirt and bacteria. Use a small scrub brush on apples, potatoes, cucumbers, or other produce in which you eat the outer skin.
- If you're concerned about pesticides, peel your fruits and vegetables and trim outer leaves of leafy vegetables in addition to washing them thoroughly. Keep in mind peeling your fruits and vegetables may also reduce the amount of nutrients and fiber.
- Read food labels carefully. Just because a product says it's organic or contains organic ingredients doesn't necessarily mean it's a healthier alternative. Some organic products may still be high in sugar, salt, fat or calories.
Organic foods will continue to take a growing share of the natural organic sector as demand rises and more companies convert their products from natural to organic.