The thing is, those people are on to something. I'm a huge advocate of eating organic and supporting organic farming, but if I didn't know what I do about labeling, I'd most likely be a skeptic, too. But real organic food IS out there! There are several things you need to know about how organic food is labeled, and the legal definition of words that are used on food products, in order to ensure that what you're buying is, indeed, organic.
Once you know the tricks of the trade, shopping for organic food is a breeze.
The most obvious way to tell if a food item is truly organic is to look for the USDA Organic label. Luckily the United States has a rigorous qualification system that regulates what can be labeled with the word "organic", and the USDA Organic label is what shows that the product is conforming to those strict regulations.
For one-ingredient items, like produce, the identifying sign may use the word "Organic", and each individual item can bear the USDA Organic seal, usually in the form of a sticker.
For items that contain more than one ingredient, like a box of cereal, there are three categories where the USDA allows for the word "organic" to be used in labeling.
1) 100% Organic: Foods with this label are made with 100% organic ingredients and may display the USDA seal. Salt and water are not included. These products may display the USDA Organic seal.
2) Organic: These products contain at least 95 - 99% organic ingredients (by weight). The remaining ingredients are not available organically but have been approved by the National Organics Program.
3) Made with Organic Ingredients: Food with this label must contain 70 - 94% organic ingredients. These products are not allowed to use the USDA Organic seal; instead, they may list up to three organic ingredients on the front of the packaging.
Any food item made with less than 70% organic ingredients can only use the word organic in their ingredients list. These products will not bear the USDA Organic seal.
It's All In The Wording
Since use of the USDA Organic seal is voluntary, you don't have to look far to find companies that try to trick consumers with misleading packaging.
1) Company Name: There are no rules regarding what words a company can use in their name, so it's important to watch out for companies using the word "Organic" or "Organics" in their name, which they display on their product in a way that misleads consumers into thinking that the product is organic when it is not. If you see the word "organic" on the front label and it's not obvious if it's a part of the name, do a quick check of the nutritional panel to see if the ingredients are organic. If not, it's simply a naming ploy.
2) Natural: The terms "natural" and "all natural" have absolutely no meaning in the United States from a legal standpoint, as the USDA has no rules when it comes to using "natural" on food packaging. Companies take advantage of this, hoping that unsuspecting consumers will think their product is organic and not look at the ingredients list.
Another way that "natural" is used to fool consumers is by disguising ingredients that have fallen out of favor, such as MSG, which is now called "natural flavoring."
What shopping for organics comes down to is looking for the USDA Organic seal, checking the ingredients list and shopping for your food at places that you trust. My favorite place to get organic food is at the Farmers Market, but I also love to shop at natural food grocery stores. Not only are they more likely to carry truly organic food items, the staff is usually quite knowledgeable about organics and can answer your questions and offer alternatives.
Also keep in mind that the USDA Organic certification process is an expensive one, and many farmers abide by the rules but simply can't afford to get certified. You can find these growers at Farmers Markets by their "No Pesticides, No Sprays" signs, or by asking, and once familiar with their names, you might start to notice them in your local stores.
With a little bit of effort and knowledge, you can find the organic food that you're looking for.