Several recent studies suggest that even though consumers often buy organic products, many are confused by what the USDA certified organic label means. To clarify, The Broadcast called Brise Tencer, Executive Director of the Organic Farming Research Foundation. Here’s what you need to know about the term organic:

If a food is labeled organic, what does that mean?
For agricultural products, the word organic means something has been produced through strict standards certified by the United States Department of Agriculture. To be certified organic, farmers cannot use synthetic fertilizers, irradiation, genetic engineering, or sewage sludge. They also must maintain soil fertility and crop nutrition through cultivation practices that encourage resource preservation and conserve biodiversity. Animals for slaughter must be raised organically for their entire lives; they must be fed products that are 100% organic, they are required to have access to the outdoors year-round, and they cannot be given hormones or antibiotics to promote growth. “You are looking at an environmental production system that is based on managing healthy soil, biological diversity, and growing healthy crops,” Tenser says. “And it is the most comprehensive, robust, and enforceable label that we have.”

Why are people so concerned about the use of pesticides?
There are currently no conclusive studies showing that organic foods have more nutritional value. There is also little consensus that eating conventionally grown foods (or those using pesticides) will lead to cancer and disease. However, farmers working with pesticides have been shown to develop cancer at higher rates. “For a lot of consumers who purchase organic food, they’re concerned with not putting themselves and their families at as much risk to pesticide exposure,” Tenser says. “Supporting organic also means not putting toxins into our environment and our waterways, our ground, and our air.”

If you want to avoid pesticides, which foods should you always buy organic?
Due to the nature of certain produce and growing practices, some fruits and vegetables are more likely to have pesticide residues even after they are washed. Typically foods with porous skins are more likely to be offenders. Based on the Environmental Working Group’s annual “Dirty Dozen” report, strawberries, spinach, nectarines, apples, peaches, pears, cherries, grapes, celery, and tomatoes showed the highest rates of pesticide residue.

Foods with tougher, thicker, skins that can be peeled typically have lower rates of pesticide residue. The Environmental Working Group put out a similar report of the foods with the lowest levels of pesticide residue, known as the “Clean Fifteen.” This list includes sweet corn, avocado, pineapple, cabbage, onion, sweet peas, papaya, asparagus, mango, eggplant, honeydew, kiwi, cantaloupe, cauliflower, and grapefruit.

If a non-food product is labeled organic, what does that mean?
USDA seals don’t apply to non-food products. But, according to the USDA, products labeled “organic” must be made with at least 95% certified organic content. Products that say “made with organic” must have at least 70% organic certified content. For materials like cotton, the USDA recognizes the international Global Textile Standard label (GOTS), which certifies fibers are grown and processed sustainably without the use of certain chemicals. These products are also increasingly available. “We are seeing a counter energy where communities come together to rebuild organic fiber production like cotton in the U.S. and internationally,” Tencer says. “And I think that is a really good trend.”

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