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No doubt you’ve seen the organic label on a variety of foods — from produce and meat to bread and cereal — even in the smallest grocery stores. But how can one little word like “organic” cover all those different foods?

It does. The rules that govern the use of the USDA organic seal — or even the word organic — are essentially the same for all foods. “Organic comes with a long list of criteria and stringent verification rules farmers and food processors have to meet,” says Charlotte Vallaeys, Consumer Reports’ senior food and nutrition policy analyst. But not every rule applies to every type of food.

Some consumers may not realize just what’s behind the organic label. While 38 percent of American grocery shoppers said they prioritize looking for an organic label, far more — 48 percent — prioritize looking for a “pesticide-free” label, according to a 2018 nationally representative Consumer Reports survey. But organic has strict standards behind it — including rules that harmful synthetic pesticides can’t be used — while the term “pesticide free” is meaningless and unregulated.

Other consumers may go for pricier organic versions of foods because they assume the organic label means, basically, everything good — that they’re getting the most nutritious and environmentally responsible food possible. But the organic label doesn’t actually confer all the benefits that many consumers assume it does.

And still other people think they’re buying organic when they’re not. “I’ve heard people say, ‘I bought it at Whole Foods, so it’s organic,’ but that’s not always the case,” Vallaeys says.

To help you understand just what you’re getting when you buy organic, we took a close look at the five top-selling organic foods.

Cow's milk

What organic means: To be certified as organic, milk must come from cows that have been raised organically since the last third of their mother’s pregnancy. The rules of organic farming require that these cows be raised in a way that “accommodates their health and natural behavior,” with access to sunlight, fresh water, shelter, clean bedding, shade, fresh air and outdoor exercise — all of which, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, reduces the animals’ stress and risk of disease.

Organic cattle can be given only organic feed, grown without synthetic pesticides or genetically modified organisms (GMOs). (Conventionally raised cows may have been fed diets supplemented with candy, sawdust and even poultry feces.)

While the cows can receive certain meds, such as vaccines and pain relievers, when needed, they can’t be given hormones that increase milk production or antibiotics for disease prevention. (If they become sick and need antibiotics, they must be given the drugs, but they’re no longer considered organic livestock and their products can’t be sold as organic.) This rule doesn’t necessarily have a direct effect on your health, but mass use of antibiotics in livestock helps create antibiotic resistant strains of bacteria, so buying organic means that you’re supporting livestock management practices that don’t contribute to the development of dangerous superbugs — bacterial infections that don’t respond to antibiotics.

What it doesn’t mean: There’s no difference between conventional and organic milk when it comes to calories, amount of protein and amount of calcium. Research does show that organic milk has more omega-3 fatty acids and conjugated linoleic acid (another type of fat considered healthful) than conventional milk. But while consuming omega-3s is linked to reduced risk for health conditions such as heart disease, the amounts found in milk are still relatively small — probably too small to affect your health.

And even organic cows haven’t necessarily been roaming the clover pastures every day. By law, they must get at least 30 percent of their food from pasture, grazing on grass. But the rest of their food can be corn or grain (as long as it’s organic). If you’re looking for milk (or meat) from cows that are grass-fed throughout their entire lives, look for the American Grassfed or the PCO Certified 100% Grassfed seals.

Prepackaged salads

What organic means: The bagged greens you find in the produce section at the grocery store — and any other type of organic produce — have to be grown according to “practices that support the cycling of on-farm resources, promote ecological balance, and conserve biodiversity,” according to the USDA. That means that the farms that grow these greens cannot use harmful synthetic pesticides (which can remain on fruits and vegetables). They must use natural ways to control pests and weeds and enrich the soil, such as using crop rotation, fertilizing with manure or compost instead of synthetic fertilizers or sewage sludge (which is derived from, yes, municipal sewage), and planting “cover crops” to prevent soil erosion.

So this choice is good for the environment and also potentially good for you. One analysis of 343 studies published in 2014 in the British Journal of Nutrition found that organic produce contained higher levels of antioxidants than conventional produce. And a 2015 Consumer Reports analysis found that organic fruits and vegetables are less likely to have pesticide residue.

What it doesn’t mean: You probably aren’t getting substantially more nutritious greens. And though organic produce can’t be treated with most synthetic pesticides, if natural crop-protection strategies fail, produce can be treated with “naturally occurring microorganisms” or pesticides derived from plants, as well as a few approved synthetic ones that have been shown not to be harmful to health.

Eggs

What organic means: The chickens must be raised organically from the age of 2 days and eat only organic feed; have much the same rights to a safe, healthy environment as cattle do; and are subject to the same rules against antibiotic use. (The USDA forbids hormone use in any chickens, conventional or organic.) Accordingly, the major benefits here are that the farms use sustainable, healthy farming practices and don’t contribute to the development of superbugs.

What it doesn’t mean: “Organic doesn’t mean the chickens are roaming free outdoors,” Vallaeys says. While organic standards specify that the birds must have outdoor access, the USDA has not enforced that rule.

Health and nutrition bars

What organic means: Ingredients such as oats, nuts and fruit in these bars are required to be grown organically, using sustainable practices without GMOs or synthetic pesticides. In processed foods, like bars, the processing itself has to comply with organic rules, which ban the use of most synthetic processing aids or artificial ingredients, such as artificial colors.

What it doesn’t mean: Just because a bar is organic doesn’t mean it’s necessarily more nutritious than a conventional bar. “Organic doesn’t mean that a bar is going to have less sugar, for instance,” Vallaeys says.

Bread

What organic means: As in other packaged products, the ingredients (at least 95 percent by weight) used to make the bread must be certified organic and contain no ingredients prohibited in organic food production regulations, such as artificial sweeteners and preservatives.

What it doesn’t mean: An organic loaf might still be relatively processed and not contain whole grains. “If you have to choose between organic white bread and conventional 100 percent whole-wheat bread,” Vallaeys says, “opting for whole wheat is a better nutritional move.”

 Copyright 2019, Consumer Reports Inc.

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