For many health-savvy consumers, the need for organic ingredients in our food and household items is a high priority. The organics industry in New Zealand alone is a multi-million-dollar business on a constant upward trend, with sales increasing 127% since 2012. The domestic certified organics market was worth $217million in 2016, alongside an export market worth between $240million-$250million*.
Many of the supplements, skincare products and food items on store shelves boast claims about their organic status, implying that they are healthier, better choices for us as consumers. But how do we know if those claims hold any weight? What guarantees are there that they are as organic as their name may imply? And how do we tell the difference between products that really are what we would expect when buying something labeled as organic, versus those that are mere marketing hype with no substance to back them up?
What is organic?
Firstly, we need to understand what is meant by the word ‘organic’ in the first place.
For most people, ‘organic’ simply means a product or ingredient produced in a sustainable, healthy, natural way that avoids the potentially toxic agrichemicals that burden much of our food chain, and the toxic chemicals often found in cosmetics, household products and skincare. Products are free from genetic modification and generally higher in nutrition than their sprayed counterparts.
For the most part, this is a fairly accurate description of what the word implies. There are some sprays and chemicals permitted in organic production by organic certifiers (more on those, later) – these are ones that have been tested, are generally naturally derived or traditionally used, and deemed ‘safe’. Examples of these include diatomaceous earth, copper, dolomite, soft soaps, vegetable oils, and vinegar.
In horticulture, the organic production process not only incorporates the methods of growing in traditional ways free from toxic chemicals, but also generally means close attention is paid to the health of the soil, with principles of permaculture, crop rotation, companion planting and other means of ensuring the long-term sustainability and health of the land and crops employed. This makes organic farming both more time intensive and generally smaller-scale, but the pay-off for the health of the planet and the food produced is enormous. Synthetic fertilisers are not used; instead, compost and other natural mineral and liquid fertilisers are employed to support the health of the soil and plants. Sustainability is the driving force behind much organic farming.
Who guarantees a product is organic?
In New Zealand, there are two primary certifiers of organic products – BioGro and AsureQuality. These companies have extremely strict criteria that grower’s must meet before being able to be certified organic, thoroughly traceable, and cover many aspects of production, from social justice through to the input products (soil, fertilisers etc) and the chemicals used during the growing process itself. Both certifiers have certification standards for food and food products, as well as ingredients, animal products, and dairy. BioGro also has a certification standard for natural cosmetics and skincare, NATRUE, assuring consumers that the product is of natural origin, even if it isn’t organic.
Regular audits are undertaken of companies that have been certified organic, and criteria must be met each time a new product is launched. Some audits may be unannounced, meaning suppliers are held to account and any deviations from their organic certification requirements are more likely to be found out, drastically reducing the likelihood of ‘cheating’. These checks for quality and compliance are undertaken annually to maintain certification status, and the entire supply chain is monitored with strict record-keeping to assure consumers that the end-product is exactly as stated on the label, with full traceability of all ingredients and products from plantation to table.
For this reason, any product labeled organic and bearing the BioGro or AsureQuality logos, as well as those of trusted overseas agencies, can be guaranteed organic, and consumers can be certain the product they’re buying has been produced to the strict standards expected of the industry. Different certification bodies have different standards, so it can pay to compare these and find out exactly what is allowed in order for them to gain their label if you do have any specific concerns.
The single best way to ensure the product you are purchasing is guaranteed to be organic is to buy products that carry these logos:
Overseas products: caveat emptor
One major issue with a number of products in the health supplement sector is the use of the word organic where it may not be so. Often products from companies based overseas will be produced with organic certification from little-known certifiers, or come with certificates and testing that is years out of date. In these cases it may well be that the product is organic as it says, but as consumers we have no real way of knowing exactly how ‘organic’ the product is, what it contains, and whether or not things are as stated on the label.
Examples of reliable certification bodies from overseas include the USDA (America), Soil and Health Association (UK), and IFOAM and ECOCERT (EU).
Greenwashing: What is it, and how do we protect ourselves?
Because organics is such a booming business in New Zealand, there are many companies who will use the words ‘organic’ or ‘natural’ on their product labels without following through on product formulations. Essentially they are capitalising on the popularity of organic and natural products in their labels and marketing but misleading the consumer with a sub-par product. This is known as greenwashing, and is rampant not only in the health and beauty sector but in household products, health supplements, and food production, too.
Here are some easy tricks to avoid being caught out by slick marketing:
- Look for an organic certification logo and number on the label, such as BioGro or AsureQuality. If a product says it is organic but doesn’t cite any certification either on its label or website, it’s unlikely to be what it says it is, and the consumer has no guarantee or way of knowing exactly how ‘organic’ the ingredients in question or the end-product is. This doesn’t just apply for food and cosmetics, but health supplements, too, which will often state ‘organic’ with no evidence to back this claim.
- Don’t be fooled by long lists of chemicals a product doesn’t contain, i.e. ‘free from SLS/TEA/parabens’, or ‘free from nasty fillers’. Look at the ingredients list and what is included in the product. Many may be free from the worst of the ‘nasties’ but still contain undesirable ingredients.
- Don’t take the words ‘natural’ or ‘organic’ at face value – often products will use these words as they contain just one or two ingredients they can deem natural or organic, while the rest are synthetic and unhealthy. Learn to read ingredients lists, and utilize books and apps such as The Chemical Maze to interpret what unfamiliar chemicals are and whether they’re ‘safe’.
- In food products, watch out for substitutional ingredients, for example if a product advertises itself as low-fat or low-sugar, look at the ingredients label to figure out what has been used in place of these and whether they’re any better. Often sugar will be replaced with artificial sweeteners, which are not necessarily healthy and certainly not organic.
- Learn to read nutritional data panels on foods to understand the levels of sugar and other macro- and micro-nutrients in a product.
- If a skin care or cosmetic product only lists a few ‘active ingredients’, get in touch and ask them for a full list of all ingredients used to make their product. In most cases they will be hiding a list of chemicals.
Given the ever-expanding market for natural and organic products, it is unsurprising to find greenwashing is so rampant in every sector of the market. However, knowing these simple tricks can protect you as a consumer from having the wool pulled over your eyes, so you know for certain that the product you are buying is exactly what you’d expect, whether it be a pumpkin from the supermarket, a bottle of organic wine, a face cream or that big jar of spirulina tablets. The only way to be sure a product is truly organic is to buy from companies who have taken the extra time and expense to obtain full and proper organic certification.
*Source: 2016 New Zealand Organic Sector Report