The Many Meanings of Organic

By Brandi Savitt – August 22, 2013


The True Definition of Food Labels

Calling all health conscious shoppers!  If you’re willing to spend more for organic food, then you better educate yourself on what the labels are really telling you.  This month’s Prevention magazine talks about the real meanings behind the ‘healthiest’ labels on the market – so you can be sure what you’re spending your money on!

In 2002, the USDA’s National Organic Program standardized the unregulated grassroots movement so all organic food producers could play by the same rules.  The result: the many definitions of “organic” – it’s just not as clear cut as you may think!  Here’s a cheat sheet to help you navigate the grocery aisles:

100% Organic

All ingredients must be certified organic, and processing aids must be organic as well.  The name of the certifying agent must be on the label, which may carry the USDA Organic seal.


Products must contain at least 95% certified organic ingredients.  The remaining 5% (except salt & water), along with any non-organic processing aids (such as chlorine to wash the packaging equipment), must be from a national list of substances the USDA has approved for use in organics.  The product may carry the USDA Organic seal.

Made with Organic

Packaging can’t include the USDA seal, but at least 70% of the product must be certified organic; nonagricultural ingredients must come from the national list. The quality of organic foods is high even at 70%, experts says..

Organic Ingredients

Below 70% organic, the product can’t claim on its package that it’s organic, except to list specific certified organic ingredients on the information panel.


The USDA says that meat, poultry, and eggs labeled with this word must have no artificial ingredients and be minimally processed.  But the term is not defined beyond those points.  Assume ‘natural’ means conventional.

Fair Trade

Non-government organizations certify that growers received minimum prices and community support from buyers and followed specific environmental practices.  Standards are not as strict as for organic.


Birds such as chickens are sheltered and have continuous access to the outdoors, along with unlimited access to food and water.  However, these claims are not certified.


Birds can freely roam inside a building or room with unlimited access to food and fresh water.  They’re without cages but can still be packed very tightly – even when organic..


Animals receive most of their nutrients from grass throughout their lives but may also eat hay or grain indoors during the winter. Animals may still receive antibiotics and hormones, according to the USDA.

No Hormones Added

Already true of the organic label, so it’s conventional producers that tend to use this term.  But there’s no certification for these claims.

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