Top | Elizabeth Magnuson — Blog

Organic and Local Foods: What’s Really Behind the Label?

(post, Elizabeth Magnuson)

        It's not just about what you eat, it’s about where it came from. Thanks to consumer drive and awareness, people are eating organically and locally produced foods more than ever. For instance, according to the Organic Trade Association, United States sales of organic food and beverages have grown from $1 billion in 1990 to $26.7 billion in 2010 (OTA 2011). But, do you really know what “organic” or “locally produced” means? Many find the words appealing on the wrapper of their favorite granola bar, yet are unaware of the government standards and ambiguity behind the labels.

	Unlike “locally produced”, the term organic has been clearly defined by the United States Department of Agriculture. The USDA defines organic production as the, “use of materials and practices that enhance the ecological balance of natural systems and that integrate the parts of a farming system into an ecological whole” (2009).

	However, often times these labels can be confusing and misleading. Many consumers do not notice that there are actually different levels of organic food. In order for a product to be labeled as certified organic, 95% of its ingredients must be certified organic themselves. In numerous instances, foods are labeled as, “made with organic ingredients” even though these foods aren’t truly organic. Instead, they are constructed using 70% organic components to produce the product.

	Americans commonly look at organic foods as the healthy option, compared to their non-organic counterparts. However this does not always conform to fact, as it turns out, there are rarely any health differences (International Business Times 2011). When it comes down to it, organic fat is still fat regardless of an organic label.

	Another popular food fad is eating “locally produced” foods. Yet, a countless number of people don’t know how to define local in relation to food. Instead, many States, as well as businesses, have defined their own standards for locally produced foods, including Illinois. According to the Illinois General Assembly, Local Farms or Food Products are, “products grown, processed, packaged, and distributed by Illinois citizens or businesses located wholly within the borders of Illinois” (2009). Defining locally produced in Illinois does not only clear up any confusion, it also helps boost the state’s economy by stressing the importance of Illinois farms and businesses. 

	Farmer’s Markets and small grocery stores often carry products produced by small nearby farms, labeling them as “locally produced” for the customers. However, big time grocery stores also label various products as “locally produced” when they are not produced nearby. These businesses use the ambiguity of the term to their marketing advantage creating their own definition of local.

	For example, take Jewel-Osco, which is here in Lake Forest, as well as locations throughout Illinois, Iowa and Indiana. By Jewel-Osco standards, a food can be labeled as “local” if it is produced within a region that encompasses four to five states (Washington Times 2011). While this may not hold true within Illinois state borders, it does at its locations in other states. Thus, a “locally” grown apple may be labeled that way in Iowa but not in Illinois.

	Consumers frequently group locally produced foods with organic foods, but as shown, they are very different products. While organic goods are quantified by specific guidelines, they can be produced and then sold anywhere in the world. On the other hand, local food producers are only held responsible for geographical standards.

	So the next time you go grocery shopping, pay attention to the labels, including the trendy ones. The best thing you can do as a consumer in today’s market is be aware of what labels actually mean.