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Organic and Chemical-Free Foods - Overview

What is organic food?

Food that is labeled "organic" has been grown or raised without chemical fertilizers, pest killers (pesticides), weed killers (herbicides), hormones, or drugs.

This means that farmers and ranchers who grow organic food:

  • Use only natural pest killers, such as plant oils, soap, fungus-eating bacteria, or bugs that eat other bugs.
  • Use only natural fertilizers, such as manure or compost.
  • Feed their animals only organic food.
  • Don't give their animals antibiotics or growth hormones.
  • Don't use genetically modified organisms (GMOs).
  • Don't use irradiation, which means using X-rays or other types of rays to kill pests, change the way plants grow, or keep vegetables and fruits from spoiling as fast.

Some countries, including the United States, have rules that govern when a farmer or rancher may use the organic label. Before a grower can use that label, a government inspector goes to the farm to make sure that the rules are being followed.

Don't assume that food labeled "natural," "sustainable," "hormone-free," or "free-range" is organic. Look for the organic seal.

What is the organic seal?

The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) has developed labeling rules for organic foods. The USDA organic seal camera.gif and the word "organic" can be displayed on organic foods. This use is voluntary, so some organic foods may not be labeled as such.

Single-ingredient foods. The word "organic" and the seal may appear on fruits and vegetables and on packages of meat, cartons of milk or eggs, cheese, and other single-ingredient foods that are grown or raised organically.

Multi-ingredient foods. All ingredients or just some of the ingredients in a food may be organic. Look for the following:

  • If all ingredients are organic, the seal and "100% organic" are displayed.
  • If 95% to 100% of the ingredients are organic, the seal and "organic" are displayed. Any remaining ingredients must consist of approved nonagricultural substances or nonorganically produced agricultural products.
  • If at least 70% of the ingredients are organic, the seal is not displayed, but the package may say "made with organic ingredients."
  • If less than 70% of the ingredients are organic, no organic claims can be made. But specific organically produced ingredients may be listed on the side panel of the package.

Why does organic food usually cost more?

Food that's grown organically may cost more than conventionally grown foods for many reasons, including these:

  • It takes more labor to grow plants and raise animals without the help of chemical fertilizers, pesticides (chemicals that kill pests), and drugs.
  • It can cost organic cattle ranchers twice as much to feed their animals, because they must use organic feed.
  • Conventional, or nonorganic, farmers and ranchers often get money from the government so that they can sell their food for lower prices. Many organic farms are too small to get this help from the government.

You may be able to save money by shopping around. Sometimes the price of organic products is close to the price of conventional ones, especially when they are in season or on sale.

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WebMD Medical Reference from Healthwise

Last Updated: January 25, 2013
This information is not intended to replace the advice of a doctor. Healthwise disclaims any liability for the decisions you make based on this information.
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