The decision to buy foods that are organic vs conventional is top of mind for many parents. Prepackaged processed organic variations of our favourite products are popping up more and more on grocery store shelves and their hefty price tags are causing some parents to question whether they are worth the money. There are a number of advantages to buying organic, however, organic food labels can still mislead you into believing one product is superior to another. It is my hope that the following information will empower you to make more healthful and informed choices when shopping.
The organic low down – Why you may want to add organic products to your cart the next time you are shopping…
Although once looked upon with skepticism, as of June 30, 2009, it is now law that all products marketed as organic must comply with the Organic Product Regulations. Translation: under the new regime, organic products sold in Canada must be certified according to Canadian organic standards and therefore, are finally trustworthy!
Many consumers are aware that organic products are virtually free of synthetic pesticides, however, you may also want to consider these additional ten benefits the next time you are shopping…
Organic foods are: *2
- Free of synthetic growth regulators (including hormones)
- Free of GMO’s (genetically modified organisms)
- Free of fertilizer or composted plant and animals material
- Free of sewage sludge, in any form, as a soil amendment
- Free of synthetic allopathic veterinary drugs, including antibiotics
- Free of synthetic ingredients and food additives including sulphates, nitrates, and nitrites
- Free of ionizing radiation and forms of irradiation
- Free of equipment, packaging materials and storage containers, or bins that contain a synthetic fungicide, preservative or fumigant
- Free of cloned farm animals and their descendants
- Free of the non-organic form of an ingredient that is present in the product in the organic form. For example, if a product contained organic skim milk it would not be permitted to also contain non-organic skim milk.
*There are some exceptions to organic ingredient requirements as per the Canadian General Standards Board. Organic Products Systems Permitted Substances Lists, CAN/CGSB-32.311-2006, amended August 2011.
So what about the label? – A word of caution!
Although you may gravitate to organic products as a source of security when it comes to purchasing prepackaged processed foods, these products, and specifically the food labels on their packaging pose the potential to mislead you into believing that their organic certifications offer even more benefits than they really do. Consider the following five points the next time you are shopping to help you avoid falling victim to savvy marketing messages and potentially misleading organic labels:
1. Do not be mislead into thinking that prepackaged processed organic foods are nutritionally superior to their conventional counterparts. All prepackaged processed foods have the potential to be high in fat, sodium, and sugars; and low in fibre, vitamins, and minerals. Both cane sugar and organic cane sugar contribute the same 4 calories per gram to your diet. Always check the nutrition facts table and make sure nutrient amounts and per cent daily values are within your target ranges. Don’t forget to check the serving size and adjust the numbers if you are planning to consume more or less of the product.
2. Not all organic foods are created equal:
- Look for products labelled “organic”. These products contain 95% or more organic ingredients, are certified, display the certification body on the label, and may display the Canada organic logo.3 It’s still a good idea to read the list of ingredients however, because these foods can contain upwards of 5% non-organic ingredients, which excludes water and salt, but may include ingredients such as cornstarch, baking soda, natural colours, natural flavours, vitamins, minerals, citric acid, yeast, and food additives that for the most part must be derived from non-synthetic sources.4
- Consider products that display a statement such as “contains x% organic ingredients” that indicates that a product contains 70-95% organic ingredients. These products are also certified and the name of the certification body must appear on the label.5 Remember to read the list of ingredients to ensure the ingredients meet your personal criteria for healthfulness.
3. Look out for the claim “Certified Organic” that perhaps implies one organic product is superior to another, or even worse, tricks you into thinking that some organic foods are not certified at all. All organic products sold in Canada that contain greater than 70% organic ingredients must be certified by an accredited certification body,6 therefore, this claim is simply used by food companies to try to influence your purchasing decisions while you are shopping.
4. Look out for the Canada Organic logo displayed on imported products. The logo can be displayed on all organic products the meet the 95% organic ingredients requirement, and that have been certified according to Canadian requirements.7 Although the logo boasts a red maple leaf and the words “Canada Organic”, it does not necessarily mean the product it is displayed on is a product of Canada. If you are concerned with consuming imported products, look for the statement “Product of” followed by the international country name, or the statement “Imported” in close proximity to the logo.8
5. Be careful not to confuse the claims “Natural” and “All Natural” with “Organic”. “Natural” claims on conventional foods are not representative of organic products or practices. The word “Natural” is typically used to indicate that ingredients are derived from natural sources vs synthetic or artificial sources.9 Always look for the word “organic” or a statement indicating the percent of organic ingredients present in a food, to guarantee products are certified and meet Canadian organic standards.
What to do if organic is not an option for you…
If the potentially high price tag of organic products is sometimes too much to swallow, look for claims such as “Local”, “Locally Grown”, “100% Natural Ingredients”, “Raised without Hormones”, “Wild”, “No Artificial Flavours or Colours”, and “No Preservatives” on conventional food labels. Although these products may not meet the stringent requirements for organic products, they do provide additional benefits and may provide you with some added comfort.
At the end of the day, whether you choose organic products or not, empowering yourself with the knowledge to make informed and healthful choices for yourself and your family is an important part of being a parent.
 Department of Justice, Canada Agricultural Products Act, “Organic Products Regulations, 2009”.
2 Canadian General Standards Board. Organic Production Systems General Principles and Management Standards 1.4, “Prohibited Substances, Methods or Ingredients in Organic Production and Handling.” CAN/CGSB-32.310-2006, amended October 2008.
3 Department of Justice, Canada Agricultural Products Act, “Organic Products Regulations, 2009”, Part 2(11), 24(1) & Canadian Food Inspection Agency, Canada Organic Regime a Certified Choice, http://www.inspection.gc.ca/food/organic-products/labelling-and-general-information/certified-choice/eng/1328082717777/1328082783032.
4 Canadian General Standards Board. Organic Products Systems Permitted Substances Lists, CAN/CGSB-32.311-2006, amended August 2011, 6.4-6.6.
5,6,7,8 Canadian Food Inspection Agency, Canada Organic Regime a Certified Choice, http://www.inspection.gc.ca/food/organic-products/labelling-and-general-information/certified-choice/eng/1328082717777/1328082783032.
9 Canadian Food Inspection Agency, Guide to Food Labelling and Advertising, section 4.7.
About the Author:
Allison Jorgens is a home economist holding a degree in nutritional sciences. She has been working as a food label specialist for grocers and food manufactures in Canada for nearly a decade. Over the past ten years, Allison has reviewed thousands of food labels for many of Canada’s leading private-label grocery brands, large and small manufacturers, distributors, and a variety of importers. It is this wide-ranging experience in regulatory-compliance label reviews that makes her knowledge unique—and her perspective all the more shocking. As a concerned parent and advocate of leading a healthful lifestyle, Allison recommends that all responsible consumers empower themselves with the knowledge needed to make more healthful and informed choices.