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The Truth About Organic Food Labeling

A Mayo Clinic expert, dietitian, and nutritionist explains organic and its potential benefits… talks with Lisa Dierks, registered dietitian and nutritionist at the Mayo Clinic Healthy Living Program, about the promises and pitfalls of eating organic. What does an organic label mean?

Lisa Dierks: A USDA-certified organic label indicates that a product was grown, processed, and handled to meet certain requirements. For produce, that means no man-made pesticides, synthetic chemicals or fertilizers, and no bioengineering. So organic means it is also free of genetically modified organisms (GMOs). All of these requirements also apply to meats with the additional promise that no antibiotics or growth hormones were given to the animals, and that animals had access to the outdoors. The caveats here are that pesticides or chemicals that come from natural sources—such as a particular copper compound that has been found to be effective—are allowed. And for meats, organic does not mean that animals are necessarily grass fed. How often do farms get re-certified as organic?

LD: Every three years. A lot of paperwork is required to prove it. Does organic also mean the food has been raised or grown locally?

LD: Local is not synonymous with organic. It is more about what some consumers value, such as environmental impact and supporting local farmers by spending dollars in their local economies. What about natural?

LD: This is a good example of labels that reflect marketing techniques. There is no regulation behind natural, so truly anyone can claim a product is natural. What other labels should consumers be wary about?

LD: Labels that read “grass-fed,” “farm-raised,” and “cage-free” are not regulated. The FDA does approve a few kinds of health claims such as fat-free and sugar-free, but look out for labels that say “reduced”—the product may be reduced in sodium, but does that make it low? Cutting 25 percent can still leave it high. The truth is on the Nutrition Facts label. You must read those. Do you still need to wash organic produce?

LD: Yes, but rinsing with water is adequate. There can still be bacteria in stores, transportation, or in hand-touching. Does eating organically mean eating healthier?

LD: Potentially. It can reduce your toxic load; and if it encourages you to eat more fruits and vegetables, that’s a good step. But the nutrient analysis of organic versus conventional growth is uneven—there are too many variables to say with certainty right now that organic produce has more vitamins or other health claims. What about processed foods—does organic make a difference?

LD: They do use organic ingredients in production, but that still does not necessarily mean that eating processed food is a healthy choice. Beware the halo effect of “organic.”


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