What Does Organic Really Mean? (Spoiler: More Than you Think)

Holding fresh crate of organic vegetables.

Living a natural, healthy lifestyle—focusing on the wellbeing and interconnectedness of the mind, body, home and environment—is a wonderful goal to work towards (and like all your goals, you’re going to crush it!).

It’s a way of life that places sustainability as one its top priorities. And a great way to support sustainability is by shopping for organic products (and of course—if grade school taught us anything—reduce, reuse and recycle).

Although the term organic is likely a part of your vocabulary, chances are you’re still a little foggy on what it actually means (don’t sweat it—most people are). We have your back though, and we put in some work (you’re welcome), to help get you up to speed. Here, you’ll learn about all things organic: What exactly it entails here in Canada, the benefits of consuming organic food, buying organic food and products, and finding retailers that sell organic products.

What counts as organic in Canada?

In Canada, organic refers to the way agricultural products are grown and processed. Organic food is produced using environmentally and animal friendly farming methods. It is a holistic approach to agricultural processes, taking into account our impact on our own bodies, the environment around us, the welfare of animals and so on. It’s pretty much the friendlier cousin to traditional agricultural practices.

View of organic crop.

The Government of Canada outlines some general principles of organic production:

  1. Principle of health: Organic production should sustain and enhance the health of water, soil, plants, animals, humans and the planet as one and indivisible.
  2. Principle of ecology: Organic production should be based on living ecological systems and cycles, work with them, emulate them and help sustain them.
  3. Principle of fairness: Organic production should build on relationships that ensure fairness with regards to the common environment and life opportunities.
  4. Principle of care: Organic production should be managed in a precautionary and responsible manner to protect the health and well-being of current and future generations and the environment.

Canada’s Organic Standards are under continual review in order to ensure that they remain up-to-date and incorporate ongoing organic research and other advances. Organic food, feed and seed are regulated under the Safe Food for Canadians Regulations (SFCR), under the purview of the Canadian Food Inspection Agency (CFIA). Additionally, to be certified as organic, a product must include 95% organic content or more. Piecing it all together is the Canada Organic Regime—whose purpose is to regulate all those involved in the certification of organic products—verifying that regulatory requirements, standards and guidance documents are met. It’s also important to note that provincial regulations exist as well.

In addition to the guiding principles of organic production and what it needs to take into account, there are also certain things that are excluded. Because sometimes the best way to explain what something is, is to explain what it’s not.

Organic standards limit and sometimes exclude the use of:

  • Toxic and persistent pesticides
  • Synthetic fertilizers
  • Routine use of drugs, antibiotics or synthetic hormones
  • Animal cloning
  • Genetic engineering or Genetically Modified Organisms (GMOs) (organic is always non-GMO in Canada)
  • Sewage sludge (biosolids)
  • Irradiation
  • Artificial food colours, flavours and sweeteners
  • Preservatives and many other processing aids and ingredients in processed foods

I think it’s fair to say that “organic” involves quite a lot more than most of us are aware of (it’s more than visiting the occasional farmers market). There are several measures in place to guarantee that these standards are upheld.

The benefits of organic

Considering organic food can be more expensive than their conventional counterparts, there needs to be benefits that justify the price. And trust us when we say, the perks of going organic are plentiful (and worth it)!

Father and daughter shopping for organic produce.

A few reasons why organic food is a sustainable option, aligned with a naturally healthy lifestyle (provided by HelpGuide):

  • Organic produce contains fewer pesticides.
  • Organic food is often more fresh! This is because it doesn’t have preservatives that make it last longer.
  • Organic farming is kinder to the environment. Farming practices reduce pollution and soil erosion, conserve water and energy and increase soil fertility. The lack of pesticides is also better for surrounding birds, animals and people.
  • Organically raised animals are free from antibiotics and growth hormones and aren’t fed animal byproducts.
  • Organic meat and milk have a higher level of certain nutrients (omega-3 fatty acids are 50% higher than in conventionally raised meat).
  • Organic food is non-GMO.

Sounds pretty awesome right? We agree.

Buying organic food

The one thing to keep in mind when buying organic food is to make sure you choose products that have the Canada Organic logo. Products that use the Canada Organic logo and are labelled with the name of the accredited certifier who validated that the products are compliant with the regulations. This is your assurance that the product you’re buying has met the strict requirements for organic food in Canada (and remember, all products must be 95% organic or more in order to meet these standards).

Keep an eye out for the logo to make sure the products you purchase are held to high Canadian organic standards.

How to buy other organic products

Organic practices are not exclusive to food, and many other products claim to be organic as well. However, there are no Canadian federal or provincial regulations for non-food products (i.e. textiles, clothing, skin care or pet food). But, it’s important to keep in mind that the lack of regulation does not mean the organic claims are false, only that the Canadian government does not currently have a system in place to make any judgements or guarantees. Basically, you should approach these products with some caution or keep on reading for a few ways to get around this hurdle.

Woman shopping for organic produce in grocery store.

Because when there’s a will, there’s a way! The United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) can certify products made with agricultural ingredients provided they meet the standards of the National Organic Program (NOP).  And this serves us because Canada has an organic equivalency agreement with the U.S., so many products, including food, deemed organic by the USDA can be considered organic here as well!

The most widely accepted certification for body care products is the USDA logo. Many body care companies certify under the USDA/NOP standards, which require at least 95% of ingredients (excluding water and salt) be organic, in order to attain the USDA Organic logo.

Textiles (clothing, fabric etc.) have a few certification options. In order to qualify for the USDA Organic logo, the requirement is that all fibres in a product be certified organic. On the other hand, Global Organic Textile Standards (GOTS) mandates that at least 70% of the product is made up of certified organic fibres with additional rules on dyes and packaging materials. Both the USDA and GOTS are reputable certifications.

Since organic products have found mainstream popularity (i.e. those organic chia seeds you love), there are a lot of options available at health food stores and even most grocery stores throughout the country (so you can feel free to enjoy your chia seed pudding from coast to coast). However, for a wider selection of organic products to choose from, there’s an incredibly helpful Find a Retailer tool available on the Canadian Health and Food Association website. Simply search for the directories listed within your region.

Now that you have a better idea of everything that goes into classifying a product as organic, we hope it’s clear that its more than just another term slapped on to your food or skincare products. There’s meaning behind it. We hope you now feel confident enough to use this term without the fear of being called out for being misinformed. Evidently, there’s a lot of thought, effort and procedural differences between organic and conventional products. Ultimately, incorporating more organic goods in your life is kinder to your body and the planet (although not necessarily kinder as a person…that’s still on you!).

  1. “Organic products.” inspection.gc.ca. http://www.inspection.gc.ca/food/requirements-and-guidance/organic-products/eng/1526652186199/1526652186496
  2. “Food and Drug Regulations.” laws.justice.ca. https://laws.justice.gc.ca/eng/regulations/c.r.c.,_c._870/index.html
  3. “Consumer Packaging and Labelling Regulations.” laws-lois.justice.gc.ca. https://laws-lois.justice.gc.ca/eng/regulations/C.R.C.%2C_c._417/
  4. “Safe Food for Canadians Regulations: SOR/2018-108.” Gazette.gc.ca. http://www.gazette.gc.ca/rp-pr/p2/2018/2018-06-13/html/sor-dors108-eng.html
  5. “The Canadian Food Inspection Agency.” Inspection.gc.ca. http://www.inspection.gc.ca/eng/1297964599443/1297965645317
  6. “National Organic Program.” Ams.usda.gov. https://www.ams.usda.gov/about-ams/programs-offices/national-organic-program
  7. “United States Department of Agriculture.” Ams.usda.gov. https://www.ams.usda.gov/
  8. “Labelling Organic Products.” Ams.usda.gov. https://www.ams.usda.gov/sites/default/files/media/Labeling%20Organic%20Products.pdf
  9. “Global Organic Textile Standard.” Global-standard.org. https://www.global-standard.org/the-standard.html
  10. “Organic Production Systems.” Publications.gc.ca. http://publications.gc.ca/collections/collection_2018/ongc-cgsb/P29-32-312-2018-eng.pdf
  11. “Organic Foods: What You Need to Know.” Helpguide.org. https://www.helpguide.org/articles/healthy-eating/organic-foods.htm/
  12. “Find Organics.” Cog.ca. https://www.cog.ca/home/find-organics/where-to-buy-organic/
  13. “Organic Regulation in Canadian Provinces.” Organiccouncil.ca. https://www.organiccouncil.ca/wordpress/wp-content/uploads/2016/10/OrganicRegulationinCanadianProvinces2016-1.pdf

As part of the senior leadership team, Michelle develops implements and leads communication initiatives that support the strategic priorities of the Association. She is responsible for overseeing the integrated communications strategy including both internal and external communications, the management of all public relations, marketing, advertising and member communications.