What "organic" labels really mean

Despite the fact that shoppers pay, on average, 50 percent more for organic food, organic products are one of the fastest-growing categories in the food business. Nearly two-thirds of U.S. consumers bought organic foods and beverages in 2005, up from about half in 2004.

While some buy organic to support its producers' environmentally friendly practices, most are trying to cut their exposure to chemicals in the foods they eat.

So what can you count on when you buy organic? If the product is labeled "100 percent organic" it means that, by law, there are no synthetic ingredients. Also, production processes must meet federal organic standards and must have been independently verified by accredited inspectors.

If the label says, simply, "organic," no less than 95 percent of the ingredients must have been organically produced. And if it's labeled "Made with Organic Ingredients," you can be sure that at least 70 percent of its makeup is organic. The remaining ingredients must come from the U.S. Department of Agriculture's approved list.

Labels that specify "natural" or "all natural" do not mean organic. The reason is that no standard definition for these terms exists, except when it's applied to meat and poultry products, which the USDA defines as not containing any artificial flavoring, colors or synthetic ingredients. The terms "free-range" or "free-roaming" are similarly meaningless. U.S. government standards are weak. The rule for the label's use on poultry products, for example, is merely that outdoor access be available for "an undetermined period each day."

Labeling seafood "organic" is also misleading, since the USDA has not yet developed organic-certification standards.

Organic purchases that do make sense include these fruits and vegetables: apples, bell peppers, celery, cherries, imported grapes, nectarines, peaches, pears, potatoes, red raspberries, spinach and strawberries. Labeled the "dirty dozen" by the Washington, D.C.-based Environmental Working Group, conventionally grown versions of these products tend to be laden with pesticides.

Also, organic meat, poultry, eggs and dairy are sensible buys. What you'll get is minimized exposure to potential toxins in nonorganic feed. You'll also avoid the results of production methods that use daily supplemental hormones and antibiotics, which have been linked to increased antibacterial resistance in humans.

Organic baby food is another safe bet. Children's developing bodies are especially vulnerable to toxins, and they may be at risk for higher exposure. Baby food is often made up of condensed fruits or vegetables, potentially concentrating pesticide residues.

Copyright 2006, Consumers Union