Understanding Organic Labels

A common misconception is that the term “natural” is regulated by the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) or some other regulatory agency, while the organic label is nothing more than “a fancy way of saying pricey.” The truth is actually the very opposite. Anyone can claim their product is “natural,” but only farmers and manufacturers who have been third-party verified as having met standards set by the USDA's National Organic Program (NOP) may use the organic label.

USDA-certified organic produce must be grown without the use of herbicides, pesticides, chemical fertilizers or genetically modified seeds for at least three years. Organic fruits and vegetables are typically identified as organic with a small sticker that says organic on it.

USDA-certified organic meat, dairy and egg products must come from animals raised without antibiotics or growth hormones and fed a diet free of animal by-products, fertilizers, pesticides and genetically engineered food. These single ingredient foods are labeled organic with a round USDA Organic seal on the packaging.

Processed foods with multiple ingredients may also carry the USDA Organic seal. For these foods, manufacturers must adhere to the following labeling guidelines.

To use the USDA Organic label a product must contain at least 95% organic ingredients (by weight). The remaining ingredients must be approved by the NOP.

To use the 100% Organic label a product must be made of all organic ingredients. Not a single ingredient may have been produced with pesticides, synthetic fertilizers, hormones, or genetic engineering.

To use the Made with Organic Ingredients label a product must contain at least 70% organic ingredients. Such products may not use the USDA Organic seal, but are allowed to list up to three organic ingredients on the front of the packaging. The remaining ingredients must be on the NOP-approved ingredient list.

Products with less than 70% organic ingredients are not allowed to use the USDA Organic seal or the word organic on their product label. They can, however, list organic ingredients on the information panel of their packaging.

This overview should help you better understand organic labels at the grocery store, but keep in mind that earning organic certification is a lengthy and costly process that not all farmers can afford. When shopping at a farm stand or farmers market, ask the vendor if they use organic practices or, if they’re not organic, if they use non-synthetic pesticides and/or practice minimal spraying. If they answer yes to any of these questions, then you're likely buying from a conscientious farmer who’s producing good quality, minimally-processed food.

How to Save on Heating Costs This Winter

Whether we like it or not, winter is coming. Even if you love all that crisp air and fluffy snow, nobody enjoys increased heating bills. But despite the Farmers' Almanac's prediction that “temperatures will be much colder this winter from the East Coast westward to a line from the Dakotas to Texas” this winter season, there are several simple and inexpensive things you can do to save on heating costs this winter.

Lower the thermostat. Each degree you lower the thermostat saves you 3% on heating costs. If you have a coil-type thermostat, make sure to keep it clean for the most accurate readings.

Install a programmable thermostat. A programmable thermostat allows you to preset temperatures for different times of the day, so you can leave temperatures lower when you're out or sleeping and warmer when you're home (reverse during the summer). A programmable thermostat is relatively inexpensive ($30 to $50), easy to install, easy to use, and can save you 10% to 20% on heating and cooling costs.

Dress your home warmly. Warming up your d├ęcor can help you remain comfortable while lowering the thermostat even further. Use flannel sheets on your bed, cover cold floors with rugs, and keep warm blankets and throws handy.

Use window treatments wisely. Pull back the window coverings on your south-facing windows during the day for the solar heat. Then close them before the sun sets to keep the heat in. Insulating curtains are also a good option. Each square foot of insulated window saves about 1 gallon of oil or 1.5 cubic feet of gas a year.

Keep the air flowing. Make sure there is nothing, like draperies or furniture, blocking air vents. If you do find that air is blowing up behind curtains, there are inexpensive air directors you can pick up at the hardware store to direct the flow of air out into the room.

Stop the “stack effect.” As warmer air rises up in a house, cold air rushes in from outside to takes its place. This is called the "stack effect." To reduce the stack effect, cut down on spaces cold air can enter your home. Use a door snake (a long, thin bean bag-type device placed at the base of a door) to stop drafts under doors, keep doors leading to hallways or near stairways shut, and close off seldom-used rooms. If you find using a door snake inconvenient, install a nylon door sweep instead.

Use kitchen and bathroom ventilating fans only for the amount of time truly necessary – typically no more than 20 minutes. According to the Department of Energy, a bathroom or kitchen fan can expel a houseful of warm air in just an hour.

Find and seal air leaks. Air leaks can waste 5% to 30% of your home's energy. Check doors, windows, electrical conduits, plumbing fixtures, ceiling fixtures, the attic, and anywhere else air may escape for leaks. Use weather-stripping or caulk to repair any leaks.

Make sure your home is properly insulated. Check the insulation in your attic, ceilings, exterior and basement walls, floors, and crawl spaces to see if it meets the levels recommended for your area. The U.S. Department of Energy's Home Energy Calculator provides insulation levels for your home based on your zip code and other basic information about your home.

Insulate windows. Insulating your windows with an kit available from most hardware stores is an easy, inexpensive way to buffer against drafts and boost to your home's ability to hold heat.

Keep your heating system properly maintained. Check air filters once a month and clean or replace them when necessary. Oil-fired boilers should be cleaned and tuned annually, and gas systems, every two years. Following these measures can save you 5% to 15% on heating and cooling costs.

Increase your hot water heater's efficiency. Put an insulating jacket around your water heater and secure (with tape, wire, or a clamp) foam pipe sleeves around the hot water pipes and three feet of the cold water inlet pipe.

Turn the temperature on your water heater down to 120 degrees. Doing so will reduce the heater's energy consumption by 5% to 10% and prevent scalding.

Reverse ceiling fans. Many ceiling fans have a switch that reverses the direction of the blades. Counterclockwise rotation produces cools air, while a clockwise rotation makes it warmer by bringing heated air down to into rooms with cathedral or high-sloped ceilings. Only use this tactic if you have high ceilings and can set the fan to rotate clockwise at a low speed.

Close your fireplace flue. An open fireplace damper lets out as much heated air as a wide-open 48-inch window. Make sure your flue is always closed when not in use. It's even a good idea to cut back on how much you use your fireplace since a fire draws heat from a room and exhausts it to the outside through the chimney.

Replace windows and appliances with energy-efficient models as they wear out. They may cost more upfront, but you'll recoup the cost with heating and cooling cost savings.

If your furnace is over 20 years old, it is not efficiently heating your home. Although replacing a furnace is a costly expense, the increased efficiency will save you money in the long run. Energy Star-certified furnaces are 15% to 20% more efficient than even new standard models.

Now get ready to bundle up, stay warm, and save money this winter!

Give Greener Toys This Holiday Season

When you give a child a gift of course you want to see their face light up in excitement as they beg to play with it right away. If it can engage their imagination and enrich their mind, all the better. But not all toys are created equal and even some of the most popular, highly sought after toys out there this holiday season can be harmful to children and the environment.

Toys considered “greener” pose no health risk for children (especially the very young ones who put things in their mouths), are made of sustainable materials, and are manufactured in way that produces less environmental waste and pollution. Here's what to look for when shopping for greener, safer toys this holiday season.

Start by taking into consideration the toy's durability. What fun is a toy that only lasts a short time? Plus, parts that break off easily can be dangerous. A multi-faceted toy that can be used in multiple ways (think blocks and simple dolls and cars) is more likely to engage a child's imagination and will last longer than a gadget toy that only performs one function.

Crafts are another great way to get kids using their imagination. Give the little artist in your life a few simple supplies like non-toxic paints and glue, scissors, and recycled paper and watch what masterpieces they create.

Avoid toys made with polyvinyl chloride (i.e., PVC or vinyl). PVC releases toxins into the environment through every step of its life cycle – from manufacturing to disposal. Many PVC toys also contain phthalates, hormone-disruptors with strong links to cancer. Opt for plastic-free toys made of wood, cloth, wool, or paper instead.

Avoid metal kids' jewelry and toys with small metal pieces or magnets. These items are perpetually being recalled due to lead content or paint. Despite all the recalls, a study by the Center for Environmental Health found that many of these products still on shelves are also tainted with lead. Even if lead is not an issue, there are still other toxic metals, such as cadmium, antimony and barium, being used to make imported kids' jewelry.

Toys made of wood, on the other hand, are a great idea. Wood toys last much longer than plastic ones and, so long as they are not treated or painted, are safer for young children to chew on. Toys made of bamboo are a particularly good option because bamboo is a fast-growing renewable resource that requires no pesticides and little water.

Thanks to its excessive use of pesticides, cotton is considered the world's dirtiest crop. Not exactly the what you want your little ones snuggling up with. When selecting fabric toys, like stuffed animals, opt for ones made from organic and naturally-dyed cotton, bamboo, or wool.

It's one thing to say avoid toys made with PVC or painted with lead paint and another to actually try and figure out how those toys on the shelves are made. Toys today do not include an ingredient list on their labels, which can make the shopping process difficult, and worrisome when you consider that about one third of the 1,500 toys tested by the Ecology Center contained medium to high levels of toxic chemicals. Fortunately, the Healthy Stuff Project by ecocenter.com provides a tremendous resource for conscientious toy shoppers. The site provides consumers toxic chemical information on over 8,300 products, including toys and other children's products. Each product tested is given an overall rating, as well as an individual chemical rating for cadmium, chlorine, lead, arsenic, bromine, mercury and, for some product categories, tin.

Today even companies like Amazon and Toys R Us have an Eco-Friendly or Green Toy category. By supporting these toy makers we can help increase the demand for safer, greener toys until the day when all toys are green toys.

Happy Holiday Shopping!