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.

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