How to Read Organic Labels

Organics 101: A Lesson in Labels

We’re told it’s green, it’s organic, it’s eco-chic, but what exactly does that mean? Here are the facts you need to know when shopping green. By Kelsey Malenchak

“When products are labeled as ‘natural’ and they’re not certified, then the company is making up what that means,” says Simon Jacques, Ontario Representative for Ecocert Canada. Know that buying products labeled “all natural” or “botanical” does not mean the same thing as “certified organic.” “There is no accepted definition for natural. It’s a pretty vague term and really, any company can decide what natural means to them and put that on their label,” adds Jacques. 

Certified Organic
Currently, in Canada, there is no system in place to regulate the standard for labeling products natural or organic. Some manufacturers have acquired organic certifications from independent organizations such as Ecocert Canada, or from other countries, such as the National Organic Program (NOP) in the United States, which uses the USDA organic seal. 

Good news for Canadians! Beginning June 30, 2009, a Canadian federal regulation will be put in place to ensure that any products sold in Canada labeled “organic” will be certified to Canadian organic standards. “Our standards are strict, and quite similar to those of the US and the European Union,” says Stephanie Wells, Senior Regulatory Affairs Advisor, Organic Trade Association in Canada. “Consumers will now see products carrying a Canadian organic seal.”

If the label reads “organic,” it means that 95% or more of its ingredients are certified organic and it was processed in accordance with the Canadian organic standards. Then there is a label stating “Made with a percentage of organic ingredients” that will appear on products containing 70% to 95% organic ingredients. The manufacturer will be required to work out the percentage of organic ingredients and state the number on the label. Unfortunately, this new law will apply only to food and does not cover health and beauty products such as skin care, shampoos and cosmetics. “We’ll have to work with Health Canada on setting up standards for those products,” shares Wells. Those products will still be certified – compliant with other organic standards, but not yet to Canadian standards.

Products or packaging labeled biodegradable decompose quickly and safely without leaving any plastic or residue, which means they are made primarily of natural components and able to break down and be absorbed into the earth. The Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) administers tests to determine the biodegradability of formulas.