If you’ve been eating food with the USDA organic label, it is easy to assume that it is 100% organic. There’s nothing to worry about, right? While the non-organic ingredients allowed in organic food make up less than 5% of the total food product. The non-organic ingredients allowed are typically items that cannot be produced organically and are essential to food production. This includes baking soda, yeast, vitamins and minerals, natural flavors and natural waxes.
The purpose of allowing non-organic ingredients in organic food is to increase the wide-spread availability of a greater variety of organic food products. Without yeast and baking soda, for example, it is difficult to produce organic bread, cookies, crackers and other baked goods.
Permitted Non-Organic Food Criteria
To be allowed in organic food production, a product must not be available in organic quality. It also must be shown to be non-harmful to both human health and the environment. This ensures that the high standards of organic food are maintained for both people and the planet.
The overall criteria are that food additives must:
- Not be GMO
- Not be irradiated (exposed to harmful ionizing radiation)
- Not be fertilized with sewage sludge
To be permitted, the overall quality of the food must be maintained. The substance’s primary use cannot be as a preservative or to enhance color, flavor, or texture, or to replace nutrients lost in processings, unless required by law.
In addition to simple natural additives like yeast, the list of permitted non-organic ingredients includes substances essential for food production such as hydrogen peroxide to clean wounds in livestock, newspaper for mulch, and sticky traps for insect and pest control.
The USDA organic list was established in 2002 and has become increasingly restrictive. Currently, there are 127 non-organic food items that can be added to organic food. By comparison, there are more than 10,000 additives allowed in non-organic food.
List of Non-Organic Food Ingredients
Non-organic ingredients fall into one of two broad categories: agricultural and non-agricultural. Non-agricultural substances include both synthetic and natural substances. Synthetic substances are created through biological processes. Ascorbic acid (vitamin C), calcium citrate, and xanthan gum are examples of synthetic allowed substances.
Natural Non-Organic Ingredients Allowed
The official list of non-synthetic (i.e. natural) ingredients permitted, according to the USDA is available online. Most of the items on the list are familiar for anyone used to reading food labels. It includes items just as agar agar, a common thickener used in Asian cuisine, as well as dairy cultures for making yogurt, keifer, and cheese. In total, there are only 30 categories on the permitted natural non-organic ingredients list.
One of the items that has been more controversial on the list is carrageenan, made from red algae. This highlights how the list continuously evolves as new research comes out regarding food safety. But beyond controversy, the list includes baking staples like cream of tartar (tartaric acid), sodium bicarbonate (baking soda), and potassium iodide, commonly added to table salt.
It also allows for natural flavors from non-synthetic sources, as well as natural clay for filtering and natural wax for coating.
Synthetic Non-Organic Ingredients Allowed
The list of synthetics officially given by the USDA includes everything from carbon dioxide to activated charcoal. There is also the baking staples ammonium bicarbonate and ammonium bicarbonate, commonly known as baking powder.
The non-synthetic allowed ingredients include substances used for sanitizing equipment as well as cleaning fruits and vegetables. For this purpose, hydrogen peroxide is on the list, along with peracetic acid and peroxyacetic acid.
Some ingredients commonly seen in organic products include ascorbic acid (vitamin C), calcium citrate and calcium phosphates, magnesium chloride (i.e. epsom salts), potassium citrate and sulfur dioxide in wine labeled “made with organic grapes”.
Compared to total food additives, there are very few non-organic ingredients allowed in organic food. The purpose of these additives is to facilitate production and distribution of organic food without harming overall product quality, health benefits, or the environment. The list of non-organic permitted substances has allowed the organic industry to grow.
Without such a list, there would be no organic baked goods because yeast, baking soda, and baking powder would not be permitted. The choice between 100% or nothing makes the value of these additives obvious. Because of these options, there is now organic certified food in nearly every category, from meat and dairy to cereals, bread, energy bars, beverages, and more.
The power is in the hands of the organic consumers to select ingredients they are comfortable consuming and to enjoy the abundance of organic food products available. You can learn more about non-organic allowed substances for agricultural and livestock production, as well as get the full USDA permitted non-organic ingredients list here.