Sunday, April 11, 2010

Food Labels Series

Part 1: Organic Labeling of Raw, Fresh and Processed Products

I didn't realize until I started researching food labeling how far down a rabbit hole I would go, so I am going to do a series about it. This is the first part of the series and it is about the USDA regulates food labels as "organic".

From the Electronic Code of Federal Regulations:
Any agricultural product that is sold, labeled, or represented as “100 percent organic,” “organic,” or “made with organic (specified ingredients or food group(s))” must be:

(a) Produced in accordance with the requirements specified in §205.101 or §§205.202 through 205.207 or §§205.236 through 205.239 and all other applicable requirements of part 205; and

(b) Handled in accordance with the requirements specified in §205.101 or §§205.270 through 205.272 and all other applicable requirements of this part 205.

Wow, that is intimidating...Here is a small portion of the huge amount of rules and regulations dealing with organic labeling.

What does "certified" organic mean?
Certified organic refers to agricultural products that have been grown and processed according to uniform standards, verified by independent state or private organizations accredited by the USDA. All products sold as "organic" must be certified. Certification includes annual submission of an organic system plan and inspection of farm fields and processing facilities. Inspectors verify that organic practices such as long-term soil management, buffering between organic farms and neighboring conventional farms, and recordkeeping are being followed. Processing inspections include review of the facility's cleaning and pest control methods, ingredient transportation and storage, and recordkeeping and audit control. Organic foods are minimally processed to maintain the integrity of food without artificial ingredients or preservatives. Certified organic requires the rejection of synthetic agrochemicals, irradiation and genetically engineered foods or ingredients.

All labels dealing with the term "organic" are based on percentage.

Agricultural Product Labels:
  • "100% organic" = all of the ingredients except salt and water, including the processing aids.
  • "organic" = 95% organic ingredients except salt and water. 5% of non organic ingredients have to be approved and on the "National List" of approved foods.
Processed Foods Product Labels:
  • "made with organic ingredients" = 70% of ingredients are organic and you can list up to 3 organic ingredients on the package. For instance, on a product it would say, "made with organic apples, strawberries and peaches".
  • products made with less than 70% organic ingredients cannot display the words organic on the front of the package, but can put which are organic on the back or the sides of the package.
Products labeled "natural" and "all-natural":

This is from here, and is talking about the labeling on a package of 100% natural granola.

The ingredients are listed in order of decreasing weight in the product. From this, we know that the weight of the raisins is more than the weight of the vegetable oil, and that the weight of the oil is more than the weight of the almonds. Looking carefully, we notice that the "vegetable oil" consists of "partially hydrogenated cottonseed and/or soybean oil". Partially hydrogenated oil is only produced artificially at high temperatures with metal catalysts in chemical plants, which means that it is not natural at all. Hydrogenation fundamentally degrades the nutritional properties of natural vegetable oils and creates trans fats that cause cardiovascular diseases. The claim in the front of the box of "100% Natural" is clearly a misrepresentation of the contents. This labeling problem has arisen because the Food and Drug Administration has not considered what can be labeled as "natural", and the law requiring manufacturers to list the ingredients of a food product does not require the rest of the information on the package to reflect the actual contents.

Clearly, labeling of what companies consider "all natural" products have a lot more loop holes than labeling organic products. Therefore, be knowledgeable of labels and look closely at the food you buy.

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