Umm… Is this Organic?

  Anamika Yadav, Vineet Kumar, Yogendra Anand |     July 20, 2023

Supplement Editor: Souparno Banerjee Senior Creative Director: Ajit Bajaj  Copy: Anubhuti Sharma  Design: Ritika Bohra 
Illustrations: Yogendra Anand  Cover Design: Ritika Bohra, Yogendra Anand  Production: Rakesh Srivastava, Surender SIngh 
Email:  Snail Mail: 41, Tughlakabad Institutional Area, New Delhi–110062

Become a smart consumer by learning how to pick out the truly ‘Organic’ stuff from amongst a host of food packets carrying various complicated labels.

Hello, friends! The other day, I went grocery shopping with my niece, Prisha, for buying some chemical-free and safe food. She’s just like you, always eager to learn new things. As we walked through the store, Prisha explored all kinds of fruits, spices, chocolates, and whatnot!

But something really confused her—lots of description on the products she’d picked up. An apple proudly proclaimed itself as ‘Organic’ and another announced itself as ‘Fresh’. A tetra pack of juice declared itself as ‘100% Natural’ and a box of ghee held ‘Pure’ as a badge of honour. Something else read ‘Authentic’ and yet other was ‘Genuine.’ There were just so many labels!

Prisha wondered, “Bua (aunt in Hindi), what do all these different words mean? Isn’t ‘organic’ the same as ‘natural’? ...Why is mustard oil calling itself ‘Pure’ and olive oil, simply, as ‘Original’?” And why are some products calling themselves ‘Real’ and others fancying as ‘Traditional’? I thought, buying organic stuff would be so easy!...”

Prisha knew that organic food is healthier but, “Is there something woefully wrong with other non-organic food products in the market?” she enquired.

Wow! It’s when Prisha bombarded me with so many questions that I realized how confusing those labels can be for all you little champs. So, let’s decode these various commercial terms and clear the buzz around ‘organic food.’

The World of Food Labels

Food labels? It’s those jazzy words that are mentioned on a food packet that Prisha pointed out before. Let's dive into their world and discover how they are regulated for our well-being because, you know, they can be so misleading!

In our country, the Food Safety and Standards Authority of India (FSSAI) frames rules about the words one can use on a food packet. FSSAI monitors them as per the Food Safety and Standards (Advertising and Claims) Regulations, 2018. It’s just a list of rules. Don’t worry! So, if any food item claims to be X and offers Y inside its packet, then it will be penalised. Thus, in this way, we can trust a food item based on its label.

Call It ‘Organic’

Organic: An organic food product is the one produced through organic farming. It avoids synthetic pesticides, chemical fertilizers, and genetically-modified organisms. When such an item is made from a single ingredient, it is labelled ‘Organic.’ To ensure that its status is organic, it is certified by our government under its Participatory Guarantee System for India (PGS-India). This certification allows an organic product to carry the ‘Jaivik Bharat’ logo and labels like ‘India Organic,’ ‘PGS-India Green,’ and ‘PGS-India Organic.’

Different countries have their own logos, like the USA has ‘USDA Organic’ and European Union has ‘EU Organic’ for their organic foods. Do you know that Sikkim is the world’s first fully organic state and has its own brand called the ‘Organic Sikkim’? (Hey! Quickly locate Sikkim on a map.)

Certified Organic: This is another label for organic foods. The condition required for earning this label is the same as for the ‘Organic’ label. Just that, a ‘Certified Organic’ item should also be a multi-ingredient product and have a majority of its ingredients of a certified origin.

However, many organic farmers sell their produce first-hand to people, without any labels, on mutual trust.

Random Food Labels

Sometimes food companies try to misinform consumers by selling their products using terms like, ‘Natural,’ ‘Fresh,’ ‘Pure,’ ‘Traditional,’ ‘Original,’ etc. The FSSAI has defined guidelines for their usage and takes strict action against their violation. However, we too should remain vigilant about such gimmicky branding—it doesn’t guarantee any product to be organic or free from toxins.

Natural: A food package labelled as ‘Natural’ contains ingredients that are solely obtained from plants, animals, microorganisms, or minerals, and do not have any additives. Simple processes like cooking, freezing, or fermentation are used for making it and its packaging is chemical-free. Multi-ingredient natural foods can be called ‘Made with Natural Ingredients’ if all the ingredients included meet the required standard.

Fresh: This means that a certain food has undergone minimal processing. It has been washed, peeled, or cut, and nothing much more. Note that if it has been processed to last long, we can't call it ‘Fresh.’ Freezing a food quickly while it is still fresh can be stamped as ‘Freshly Frozen’.

Pure: Food stuffs that brag themselves as ‘Pure’ contain only one ingredient, no additives, and minimal contaminants. Multi-ingredient foods of this sort can be called ‘Made with Pure Ingredients,’ if all the constituents meet the same purity standards.

Authentic, Genuine, Real: These words are endorsed on a food container when the food is truly what it claims to be. If it is used to describe something, then it needs to explain why it is special or unique.

Traditional: It means that the way of making some food or its recipe has been around for a long time, like thirty years, without changing much. That’s when it can be treated as ‘Traditional.’

Original: It is used for the foods that are made in a specific way, which hasn’t changed much over time. It can also refer to the initial way of making something or when a product is revived—as it existed before—after being unavailable for a long duration. That’s when it can be claimed as ‘Original.’

Other labels: Apart from the ones discussed here, there are many arbitrary labels which you'll find on the shelves of any store and these may or may not be true. (Here's a homework: define 'vegan'!)

What’s Organic Really?

You know, most foodstuffs on our tables today are grown using excessive chemicals than recommended, causing environmental, health, and livelihood issues. To tackle this, our government is promoting organic farming, which is a special, environment-friendly way of cultivating food. It is advancing it through schemes like Paramparagat Krishi Vikas Yojana, Mission Organic Value Chain Development for Northeast Region, and National Mission on Natural Farming.

Before the Green Revolution of the 1960s, which was launched to address our growing food demand through high-yielding crops and artificial inputs, our country predominantly practised organic agriculture. Organic farms use natural compost made from plant leftovers or animal waste, like cow dung. They use natural extracts made from various botanical sources, like neem leaves, as insecticides and pesticides. They also practice local farming techniques, like crop rotation, to control weeds and enrich soil nutrition. All these methods make their yield really nutritious and safe to eat. And healthy food means a healthy country!

By the way, you can also muddy your hands at organic farming in your kitchen gardens!

Organic Benefits

Organic food is like a superhero for our health! When we choose organic, we select food that doesn’t have harmful residues which trigger diseases inside our bodies. Plus, organic fields require less irrigation and fertilization, which makes them cost-effective, eco-friendly, and also climate-friendly. Not only that, by preferring organic food, we also fund the incomes of our poor farmers. Do you know that India ranks ninth in the world in terms of having maximum area under organic cultivation and first in terms of the population of organic farmers? So, opting for organic farming is a win-win situation for us!

Organic Challenges

A major challenge regarding organic food is the lack of public awareness about its benefits. But, now that you have learnt about it, do spread the word about its advantages among your family and friends.

Next, the market for organic food is very limited so it is not economical for farmers to practise it on a large-scale. This also constraints their product’s supply for us. So, now onwards when you go grocery shopping, make sure you shortlist organic veggies and fruits in your basket.

Further, you can also proactively approach any organic farmers nearby and source cereals from them directly. Just as you have family doctors, you can have a family farmer too! In this way, you can support local farmers committed to sustainable food practices and ensure a regular supply of organic produce for your home. Remember: it’s only when you ask for more organic, farmers will grow more organic.

About the Author

Programme Officer, Sustainable Food Systems team, Centre for Science and Environment, New Delhi

Programme Manager, Sustainable Food Systems team, Centre for Science and Environment, New Delhi

Illustrator, Art & Design, Centre for Science and Environment, New Delhi

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