Grocery shopping can be a confusing process if you are someone who is trying to be health/eco conscious. Labels are intentionally misleading, and label laws can be downright silly. There are federal and third party certifications for a million things – non-GMO, Vegan, Kosher, gluten free, etc., etc., etc. – so depending on what your values are, there can be any number of symbols and words you are looking for on a food label.
Whether you are looking for specific label claims or not, it is useful to understand the difference between three central designations of production: conventional, organic, and IPM.
‘CONVENTIONAL’ food is the most common in our contemporary food system. Conventional food is not typically labeled (except at Whole Foods), but is what most Americans think of simply as food (a.k.a. non-organic food). It is usually the cheapest, and is by far the most widely consumed. Conventional food is produced without limitation on chemical use, antibiotics, genetically modified ingredients, and so forth. This is the food of the modern, industrial system.
‘ORGANIC’ food is federally certified by the USDA to meet certain standards of production. Big ticket items include limiting chemical use, and prohibiting the use of GMOs and sewage sludge. Organic products are not all created equal, though. If you ever buy organic foods, it is important to know the difference between the products that are labeled “100% Organic”, “Organic”, “Made with Organic”, and products that include organic items in the ingredient list.
100% Organic – All ingredients must be certified organic, including any processing aids (e.g. preservatives).
Organic – All ingredients must be certified organic, except where specified on the National List*. National List items can only make up 5% of the product’s ingredients.
*The ‘National List’ refers to the National List of Allowed and Prohibited Substances, which identifies substances that may or may not be used in organic crop, livestock, and processed food production, in order to meet USDA regulations.
Made with Organic – 70% of ingredients in the product must be organic. The other 30% do not have to be certified, but there are certain practices that are still prohibited for those ingredients.
Specific organic ingredients – A product that contains less than 70% of organic ingredients cannot use the USDA Organic label, or say the word ‘organic’ on the main label panel. Any certified organic ingredients may be listed in the ingredients panel.
‘IPM’ is a useful designation to be familiar with if you are concerned about the environmental and personal health consequences of heavy chemical use on crops. It stands for Integrated Pest Management, a sort of middle-ground production method advocated for by the Environmental Protection Agency. The basic principle of IPM is to use the most “current, comprehensive information on the life cycles of pests and their interaction with the environment” in order to determine the most economically and chemically efficient method of pest control. IPM does not limit the use of chemical sprays the way that organic does, but it encourages IPM growers to use them judiciously. If you buy produce from farmer’s markets or directly from farms and orchards, keep an eye out for IPM farms, and don’t be afraid to ask the producer what methods they use!
As consumers we all value different standards in our food, but being informed about the various designations in our food system is an important first step to putting our money where our mouths are.
Personally, I try to support both organic and IPM producers over conventional, when economically feasible. I feel that any measure a grower is making to be more sustainable, and to produce safer food, is worth supporting.
This time of year, with the onslaught of autumn apples, is a great time to seek out your local IPM producers. Apples are a very difficult item to grow organically in large quantities, so many producers looking to move away from the conventional model turn to IPM for their apple orchards. We recently went apple picking at an IPM orchard in Vermont, and have been enjoying delicious apples ever since!
Knowledge is power. Happy shopping!