A Guide to Buying Organic Food: Reading Food Labels

Organic, wholesome food—savored slowly—is truly the key to the good life.


| July/August 2006


Why buy organic? The short answer is that organic foods may be a better choice for your health and the environment because they’re not subjected to pesticides, antibiotics and hormones, nor are they made from genetically modified plant or animal species. The issue gets a bit more complicated, however, as you wander through the supermarket aisles and start reading food labels. Let’s take a look.

Vegetables and Fruit

Buying organic vegetables and fruits is the single easiest way to reduce your exposure to pesticides, antibiotic residues and genetically modified food. An Environmental Working Group study found an average of 200 industrial chemicals and pollutants in the umbilical-cord blood of newborns, some of which are pesticides that may have entered the bloodstream through the mother’s diet. Adult levels exceeded 275 contaminants. The good news is that when children eat organic produce, their pesticide exposure levels drop to well below what the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) considers a negligible health hazard, according to University of Washington researchers.

Fortunately, the United States has a national organic standards program administered by the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA). When you buy USDA-certified organic food, you know it’s produced without using most petroleum-derived pesticides, fertilizers made with synthetic ingredients or sewage sludge. Organic regulations also prohibit bioengineered species and irradiation. Before a product is labeled “USDA-certified organic,” a third-party, government-approved certifier inspects the farm for compliance. Companies that handle or process organic food for the supermarket are also certified.

Look for the USDA green-and-white “certified organic” symbol on organic fresh, frozen and canned fruits and vegetables. Also note the fresh-produce stickers: Organic produce always starts with a number 9, followed by the price code. Labels on genetically modified produce, which is not organic, begin with a number 8, followed by the price code.

Poultry and Eggs





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