What is Organic

If Eating Organic Was a Color – It Would Be Shades of Grey

shutterstock_262694438For a colorful world of grocery – from bright red raspberries to deep blue corn chips –  it is remarkable how the organic food industry has various shades of grey. While this blog post is no “50 Shades of Grey” novel, it is a hot topic with no perfect answers!

Some of the big “grey dilemmas” I personally struggle with include:

  • Going the Distance: Local non-certified organic products from my town’s farmer’s market vs certified organic from across the world
  • Comparing Certifications: Who can I trust? Do certifications even matter?
  • Marketing Authenticity: The product is self-declared organic or “all natural,” does that count for anything?
  • Companies Behind the Products: Organic products from large corporations vs. from smaller, independently owned companies
  • Price Point: How much is reasonable to pay for premium sourced, organic products?
  • Miscellaneous: Don’t even get us talking about seafood! Some parts of the industry are still in creation!

To be honest, I don’t have the answers to these questions. They are intended to stimulate a dialogue. The right side of my brain questions why a perfect mathematical equation does not exist yet to simply solve for the best decisions. Perhaps some mobile engineers are creating an app as we speak to help consumers make more informed purchase decisions purchase smarter – but while we wait, let’s start talking about 3 key topics: Local, Certifications and Price Point.


Buying local is not just the latest hop topic for “hipsters,” it is a truly important movement that is here to stay! Defining local can be subjective – some common definitions include:

  • Made in your state or region
  • Made within 100 or 250 miles of your home

Local is critical to our long-term food sustainability because it can help the amount of miles the food travels to you (reducing carbon offsets), supports the local economy (keeps your neighbor in business) and helps you purchase fresher (may be even more nutritious for being fresh picked).

As Albert’s Organics explains: “The ideal, of course, is to find food that is both local and organic. Not to choose one over the other, but rather to encourage and educate our local growers to embrace the organic farming system.“

If your local farm tells you that they practice organic farming but cannot afford the certification, be sure to refer them to the Certification Cost Share.


Let’s go back to the basics. What is the purpose of a certification at its core? In general, a certification refers to the confirmation of certain characteristics of an object. This confirmation is often provided by some form of external review, education, assessment, or audit. In short, hearing it from an unbiased, third-party is more trustworthy to ensure something is what it says it is.shutterstock_277780160

Some of the industry favorites to be on the lookout for include:

These certifying organizations serve as reliable sources that your product is authentic and genuine in the claims they are making.


shutterstock_118298935As in the saying, “Tom-ay-to, Tom-ah-to”, I can imagine how a conversation would go between my thrifty Irish grandmother and me:

Nana would say,“Why would we spend extra money for these organic Tom-ay-toes? It looks identical to the cheaper Tom-ah-toes.”

I would reply, “Nana – the certification really matters on these Tom-ay-toes. There’s  a whole story behind the food from seeding to harvesting – more than what we can see in the price tag”

In reality, it can be tough to justify the expense for organic when two products practically look identical. It helps me to think that you are not just buying a look-like but you are actually:

  • Ensuring you eat products without fertilizers, pesticides and chemicals.
  • Supporting an industry that needs growth.
  • Increasing the “demand” of supply/demand which overtime will drive prices lower.
  • Thinking preventative health. We do not know the long-term implications of the interactions between fertilizers/pesticides in our food. While the verdict is still out, I think reducing the risk is worth the cost.
  • Leveling the playing field. The main reasons conventional often costs more are because the farms get subsidies that you end up paying for through your taxes. When you buy organic, you are more closely purchasing the “true value” of the food.

Simple Ingredients

shutterstock_325105187Lastly, it is important to take a look at the ingredients list. For example, it is hard to compare a single-sourced fair trade coffee bean with a certified organic coffee beverage featuring dozens of different ingredients. I would recommend that the less processed and simpler ingredients, the more pure the product on the scale of natural to conventional. Also, a fun way to filter your food is to see if you can actually read and understand the ingredients on the ingredient list.

Call to Action: 50 Shades of Comments: Tell us – How do you navigate the spectrum of grey? Any tips or tricks?

~Blog Post By Laurie Burgess

6 thoughts on “If Eating Organic Was a Color – It Would Be Shades of Grey”

  1. Here are a few of my thoughts having been involved in the organics industry for some time:

    1) Educate yourself – what are you trying to achieve when buying organic e.g. fewer pesticide residues, avoidance of GMOs, higher nutrition content etc. – this is important if you chose to go with a non-certified local supplier.

    2) Spend some time getting to know your local suppliers making sure they meet your needs and purchase from them when possible and practical.

    3) Canadian Organic Regime (COR), USDA and EU standards are generally reliable organic standards but as with all standards there is some disagreement.

    4) It is important to understand that there are certified organic ingredients/foods and certified organic products. The latter refers to processed products as a whole e.g. a box of cereal. Normally the certification standards logo of the product will be prominently displayed on the front label of any processed food product indicating that the entire product has been manufactured in accordance with certified organic standards.

    5) If it doesn’t say certified organic it isn’t! If it says certified organic and you can’t find evidence of which certification standard applies it probably isn’t certified organic.

    I hope this helps!

    1. Absolutely! I completely agree. There are so many trade-offs on different aspects – I like how you pointed out that people must pick out what is important to them as it may vary person by person. Thanks for sharing, Graham!

  2. Life is one big grey area, isn’t it? I wouldn’t have it any other way.

    So, local. I shop at a farmer’s market every week, and whatever is there is whatever is growing local. We have about two months when we can get cherries, and that’s it, although a truck will come down from Oregon in August sometimes. So, it’s pretty clear that cherries at a supermarket in December came from, I dunno, Argentina? Well, who cares, fresh cherries in December is just wrong. Ditto with strawberries and a lot of other things. That’s the way I grew up; fresh strawberries was my May birthday treat. Isn’t buying local just part of life, and a good part? When you get the first sweet corn of the season and your head explodes?

    Certification. Your summation as “the confirmation of certain characteristics” and so on seems accurate. And I suppose our “unbiased, third-party” is our selection of regulatory agencies, and the scientists who inform them. In 2016, it’s up to every individual to form an educated opinion on how much we can trust those regulatory agencies, and I guess I mostly trust them, to a degree where “certified organic” doesn’t mean much to me. The same agencies watch over conventional agriculture and organic agriculture, so I don’t see any difference in safety.

    I wish I could say that I see a difference in environmental friendliness between conventional and organic
    farming, and there is some overlap; organic farming introduced some farming techniques that made a lot of sense, so now a lot of farmers use them. But mostly, I see “certified organic” as a demand-originating property; a certification to make consumers feel safe, as opposed to a certification that promotes environmental-friendly farming practices, a more supply-originating effort.

    A certification that would appeal to me would be an “environmentally friendly” certification. Unfortunately,
    there would be some divergence between that and “certified organic.” More to the point, can we combat, say, climate change by certification? Do we really need certification to identify fresh cherries in December as something that contributes to climate change? And when does certification simply become a marketing tool? And with certification comes a regulatory agency, and while I mostly trust them, is that always the best way to change things for the better?

    1. Valid points and questions, Scott!! Thanks for your thoughts! I wish it was easier to identify environmentally-friendly, local, seasonal, authentic products too. That would be the proverbial cherry on top of the icing.

  3. Last week, our allies at Food Democracy NOW! broke the news that OTA board member Melody Meyer, who represents UNFI, the largest U.S. distributor of natural and organic products, is pushing for gene editing, a dangerous new form of genetic engineering, to be allowed in organic.

  4. Hi John,
    Please take a moment to read my Organic Matters blog post carefully and you’ll note that I state that GMO technologies “need more investigation and discussion,” that they “be explored and challenged” and that “they do not belong in organic production.”

    the name of the post is “If you care about organic, show up for organic”

    In this blog I pose some questions that have been asked by several organic seed breeders and other informed stakeholders. Asking questions is not an indication of support. Sometimes difficult conversations need to be had and it is because of this kind of public defamation that many in our community are afraid to speak up. It is my intention that the organic community can become comfortable with individuals initiating these complex conversations in the future.

    UNFI is a longtime supporter and an industry leader in promoting organics, fighting GMO proliferation and raising standards for food quality and integrity. We unequivocally support the full disclosure of product ingredients to consumers, including their right to know whether food products contain GMOs. UNFI believes the cultivation of GMOs and their presence in our food supply pose a threat to human and animal health and to the environment and is fundamentally contrary to our vision of a sustainable future. We believe the definition of GMO’s must include the new gene editing techniques.
    Thank you, Melody

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