What does “organic” really mean? Understanding food labels

Organic, 'made with organic ingredients', all natural - what's the difference in food labels?

What does “organic” really mean? Understanding food labels

In the food world, organic generally means food grown or raised naturally – without synthetic pesticides, antibiotics, growth hormones and so on.

So if you're in the store and pick up an item with the word organic on the label, what does that guarantee you?

The US Department of Agriculture has guidelines that govern the use of the term organic on food labels.

The USDA spells out three categories of labels:

  • 100% organic. Foods that don't contain any non-organic ingredients can be labeled as "100% organic".
  • Organic. Foods can be labeled simply "organic" if they contain 95% organic ingredients, and the other 5% do not contain growth hormones.
  • Made with organic ingredients. Foods that have at least 70% organically produced ingredients can use the term "made with organic ingredients". That's right  - up to 30% of the contents could be non-organic.

If you like legal precision and you have a strong cup of coffee at hand, you can read the USDA's official language on the department's website. All kidding aside, there are some details and loopholes.

Here is a very important loophole: small farms that generate less than $5,000 annually from their organic offerings are exempt from certification requirements. They can use the term "organic" on their labels, but can't also add the USDA logo.

So for absolute certainty about your food, look for the categories named above AND look for the USDA official logo on the labeling as well. 

How farms get certified as organic producers:

Farms that market their products as organic have to demonstrate that their processes conform to federal rules, which were first established in 1990 to clear up confusion and inconsistency in the industry.

There are a number of detailed requirements for organic farms. These farms cannot use synthetic fertilizers or pesticides, must take steps to avoid contamination of their products, and use farming techniques that maintain the health of the soil and overall farm environment. An independent agent must inspect the farm and document that these requirements are being met. As you might guess, there is a fair amount of paperwork involved in organic farm certification.

The USDA's National Organic Program continues to refine the rules governing farms that want to be certified as organic. For example, through late 2010 the NOP gathered public input on a draft of guidance for the National Organic Standards. This guidance is "are intended to assist those who own, manage, or certify organic operations in carrying out their responsibilities by providing a uniform method for complying with the national organic standards and conducting audits and inspections."

The NOP's work is generally well documented. They even maintain lists (updated monthly) of operations that  have had their organic certifications revoked, including the reason, and of those that have had the certification reinstated.

Are foods labeled "natural" organic?

The most misunderstood word in food labeling may be "natural".

Natural foods can't include synthetic ingredients, but they are NOT the same as "organic" foods. They may be heavily processed, and may include (for example) animals raised with antibiotics and growth hormones. High-fructose corn syrup (which corn growers now aim to rename "corn sugar") is a natural substance, but producing it from raw corn requires a number of processing steps.

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