R. Elaine Turner

Coming soon to a supermarket near you are standard definitions for the use of the term “organic” on food labels. By October 21, 2002, the labeling regulations established by the National Organic Program must be in place.

Products that are at least 95% organic by weight (excluding water and salt) may use the word “organic” in the product name. Organic meat, poultry, eggs, and dairy products must come from animals that are given no antibiotics or growth hormones. Organic produce and other foods must be produced without conventional pesticides, petroleum-based fertilizers, sewage sludge–based fertilizers, bioengineering, or ionizing radiation. “Organic” or “95% organic” foods may also use the USDA Organic seal.

Products with at least 70% organic ingredients may use the phrase “made with organic ingredients” and list up to three of these ingredients on the principal display panel. Finally, products with less than 70% organic ingredients may not use the term “organic” on the principal display panel, but may identify the organic ingredients in the ingredients statement. Any product labeled as organic must identify each organically produced ingredient in the ingredient list and must display the name and address of the certifying agent.

Consumers will benefit from these new regulations because they give a standardized meaning to the term “organic.” This differs from the term “natural,” which has no legal meaning for foods regulated by the Food and Drug Administration. Unfortunately, many consumers equate the two terms and further assume that both mean “healthy.” FDA allows the word “healthy” to be used on processed foods that are low in fat, saturated fat, sodium, and cholesterol, and contain at least 10% of the Daily Value (DV) per serving for vitamin A, vitamin C, calcium, iron, protein, or fiber. This descriptor can also be used for raw produce, single-ingredient canned or frozen fruits and vegetables, and certain enriched grain products. But adjectives such as “healthy” or “pure” cannot be used to modify the term “organic.” They can, however, be used in other labeling statements as appropriate.

Are organic foods healthier or contain higher levels of nutrients than conventionally grown foods? A report, “Nutritional Quality of Organic Versus Conventional Fruits, Vegetables, and Grains,” by V. Worthington in the April 2001 issue of Journal of Alternative and Complementary Medicine claimed that they do. It said that “organic crops contained significantly more vitamin C, iron, magnesium, and phosphorus.” The author reviewed 41 studies (field trials, greenhouse experiments, market basket surveys) that compared organically grown crops to those grown with conventional fertilizers or farming systems published between 1946 and 1999. Of the 10 minerals and 2 vitamins that were measured in 8 or more studies, only vitamin C, iron, magnesium, and phosphorus were consistently found in higher amounts in organic produce (the average percent differences were 27% for vitamin C, 21% for iron, 29% for magnesium, and 14% for phosphorus).

Worthington also projected the nutrient content of a diet including a serving of each of the five most frequently studied vegetables: lettuce, cabbage, spinach, carrot, and potato. Choosing organic provided an additional 21 mg of vitamin C, 0.7 mg of iron, 11 mg of magnesium, and 12 mg of phosphorus (35% of the DV for vitamin C, but only 1–4% of the DV for the others). Further, this analysis did not include any fruits—major contributors to vitamin C in the U.S. diet.

This report was hailed by proponents of organic farming as vindication that organic foods are more nutritious. However, the report has been criticized for combining studies that used dissimilar methods of fertilization, storage, handling, and analysis. Any studies of nutrient content of produce find large variations due to weather factors, and differences in crop varieties. Accordingly, the question of whether organic foods are consistently more nutritious remains unanswered.

Nevertheless, beginning October 21, 2002, foods or ingredients labeled “organic” must comply with national standards for production. The impact of these regulations is not clear. Consumers are probably unaware of these new definitions and are likely also unaware that organic foods have not been conclusively shown to be more nutritious than conventional foods. Consumers still need to read labels, and evaluate the nutritional content of their choices. While organic foods may sometimes be higher in nutrient value, this isn’t the case for every nutrient, and often the differences are too small to be significant.

Assistant Professor
Food Science and Human Nutrition Dept.
University of Florida, Gainesville