In a guest post today, Samantha Miller digs deeper into understanding the nature of labeling in the organic food market.  Miller is a graduate student in Journalism at American University.  She is a student in this semester's "Science, the Environment and the Media" course -- MCN.

Grass-fed beef, cage-free chicken, all-natural apple juice … organic Oreos? As large food companies continue to trickle into the mainstream organic market, deciphering food labels has become a bit of a mystery. “Even the basic understanding of what ‘organic’ means is not universal,” according to an article in the Journal of Consumer Behavior. “If consumers cannot distinguish organic from conventional food on reasonable criteria, it is not surprising that they do not purchase organics at greater rates.”

Moreover, several European studies found that consumers are skeptical of organic certification programs, causing them to dismiss organic foods altogether. And maybe they’re onto something — the USDA’s organic program calls itself a “marketing program” that doesn’t regulate nutrition or food safety. Although the program does keep a close eye on products labeled organic.

So to make your next trip to the grocery store a little less confounding, here’s a breakdown of the most commonly used labels.

  • ORGANIC: "Organic food is produced without using most conventional pesticides; fertilizers made with synthetic ingredients or sewage sludge; bioengineering; or ionizing radiation," according to the United States Department of Agriculture. Any item labeled organic must be made with at least 95 percent organically produced materials. However, this regulation doesn’t apply to personal-care products like shampoo or makeup, Deirdre Imus writes in her book, The Essential Green You!
  • USDA CERTIFIED ORGANIC: This label can only be used on meat and dairy products. The animals can’t be treated with hormones or antibiotics and must have access to the outdoors. They must be given organic feed, but that doesn’t mean they’re on a grass diet
  • MADE WITH ORGANIC INGREDIENTS: Products sporting this label must contain at least 70 percent organically produced materials
  • NATURAL or GREEN: Beware — there aren’t any federal regulations on these terms. And yet 18 percent of Americans regularly buy “all-natural” products, according to a 2007 Harris poll
  • CERTIFIED HUMANE RAISED AND HANDLED: “This label is bestowed by the American Human Society on animal products that meet their criteria for animal welfare,” according to The Essential Green You!
  • GRASS-FED or PASTURE-RAISED: Animals were raised in a grazing pasture
  • CAGE FREE: This applies to chickens that weren’t housed in traditional wire cages. Although, there’s no way to tell if the birds were raised in a pasture, a barn with one window or an overcrowded coop
  • NO ADDITIVES: This means additives weren’t injected into the eggs. “It doesn’t have anything to do with what the chickens were fed, nor does it ensure that no antibiotics or pesticides were used to treat the birds,” according to The Essential You!

Eco chic: How sustainability became a Hollywood trend

Singer Sheryl Crow released an organic cookbook last month, actress Natalie Portman launched a vegan shoe line in 2008 and celebrities are photographed toting Whole Foods grocery bags on a daily basis. “Some people now perceive organic food to be fashionable because of the considerable coverage in the media it has received, the recent promotional campaigns and the high prices associated with organic food,” according to the article in the Journal of Consumer Behavior.

While celebrities aren’t getting paid to shop at Whole Foods — that we know of — there’s a reason Americans fawn over the latest Hollywood trends. “Celebrities are particularly effective endorsers because they are viewed as highly trustworthy, believable, persuasive, and likeable,” according to an article from the European Journal of Marketing.

Plus, popular books like Michael Pollan’s The Omnivore’s Dilemma and films like Food, Inc. helped shed light on America’s industrialized food system, ultimately transforming the way people think about food.

And then there’s the clothing market. Fashion designers are beginning to respond to consumer demands for eco-friendly products, and that means a greater selection of feel-good frocks for shoppers. And with reputable names like H&M, Levi’s and even Walmart jumping on the sustainable bandwagon, consumers now have myriad options to chose from. In fact, global sales of organic apparel and home fabrics jumped to $4.3 billion in 2009, a 35 percent increase from the year before, according to the Organic Trade Association.

The organic movement has pervaded just about every mainstream outlet — from grocery store aisles and movie theater screens, to New York City runways and the Hollywood Hills. If current trends are any indication, the organic phenomenon is here to stay.

-- Guest post by Samantha Miller, a graduate student in Journalism at American University, Washington, D.C.  This post is part of the course "Science, Environment, and the Media" taught by Professor Matthew Nisbet in the School of Communication at American.  See also other posts on food policy by Winn and members of her project team.