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Good Question: What Does Organic Actually Mean?

MINNEAPOLIS (WCCO) - The U.S. Department of Agriculture started regulating the use of the word "organic" on foods in 2002. Since then, there's been huge growth in that category. Grocery stores like Kowalski's say they've seen double-digit growth in demand for organics every year in the past decade.

Studies have shown people are willing to pay 20 percent to 25 percent more for organic foods -- even when they don't know exactly what organic means.

So, what does it take to get an organic label? Good Question.

The USDA sets strict criteria for when the label organic can be used. If a company misuses that label, it can be a fine of up to $11,000.

There are four different ways you might see organic on foods. First, there are rare cases where every single ingredient is 100 percent organic. The second level, the most common, is the USDA organic seal. The third category would be items "made with" organic foods and the fourth is for anything that "contains" organic foods.

The last two categories are not as common because, according to Francisco Diez, head of Food Science and Nutrition at the University of Minnesota, they are not as attractive for the consumer.

"A very simplistic way to put it is the way our great-great-grandfathers used to produce food when they didn't have any chemical substances, any kind of synthetic ingredients, any kind of knowledge about agriculture," he said.

To become USDA certified organic is a three-year process that must be verified by a USDA-certifying agent.

Crops must not have any genetically modified organisms, synthetic fertilizers, sewage sludge, irradiation or certain pesticides. A short list of synthetic pesticides are allowed.

"Ninety-nine percent of the pesticides used in conventional foods are not allowed in organic, but I think it's important to remember even organic foods can also contain some approved pesticides," Diez said.

For livestock, there are health and welfare standards, no antibiotics, no hormones, 100 percent organic feeds and requirements to provide animals with access to the outdoors. When it comes to multi-ingredient foods like cheese and yogurt, 95 percent of the ingredients have to be certified organic.

When it comes to whether organic foods are healthier, Diez said there still isn't enough evidence available. He said it's also important to note people define healthy differently. People use different measures to consider nutritional value, food safety, animal safety, environmental effects and pesticide use.

"That's what's really hard as scientists to communicate with the consumer," he said. "We don't have levels of sciences that have advanced [enough] to find a difference."

He said the only proven scientific difference is that there are fewer pesticides on organic foods.

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