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What Those Labels Really Mean: ‘Organic’ (and All Its Variations)

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Food labels do a lot of things – they are home to standardized, regulated information like the Nutrition Facts section and marketing ploys such as unregulated claims, product promotions, or celebrity endorsements. But, with labels seemingly only getting more complicated with more colors (read: green washing techniques) and more terminology, what phrases and words found on U.S. food labels are actually based on science, and what stuff is simply plastered on the label to get you to buy?

 In this series, we’ll explore some of the most common label terms found on products in the U.S. We’ll determine whether or not they’re actually regulated by the Food and  Drug Administration (FDA) or the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) – or if the terminology is little more than fancy words and phrases meant to play to your emotions and get you to load up your grocery cart.

Today, we’ll look at terms describing the use of the phrase “organic” on labels, as well as all of its variations. What the heck does this really mean? Do these label claims actually say anything about the product you’re considering taking home with you?

The United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) is responsible for regulating the National Organic Program. According to the USDA, the official meaning of organic is: “the food or other agricultural product has been produced through approved methods that integrate cultural, biological, and mechanical practices that foster cycling of resources, promote ecological balance, and conserve biodiversity. Synthetic fertilizers, sewage sludge, irradiation, and genetic engineering may not be used.”

The USDA will grant food products the widely-recognized green (or black)-and-white “USDA Organic” icon to emblazon the product label if it is “certified organic” and made with 95 percent or more organic ingredients. In order to become certified, the farm or place of product processing must be inspected and verified by the USDA or by one of the other “more than 90 organic certification agencies operating around the world.”  The USDA claims it and its agents make more than 30,000 on-site inspections every year – and people caught selling or labeling products as “organic” when they don’t meet the USDA’s guidelines can be fined up to $11,000 each time a violation occurs.  So, the label ensures that at least 95 percent of the ingredients in the given product are made from the good stuff. But, did you know that there are different stipulations for other “organic” claims that are made on labels?

According to a USDA Organic Fact Sheet, food companies using organic terminology must follow these parameters:

For a product that states it is “100 percent organic,” the ingredients and processing must be – you got it – 100 percent organic. The label also has to mention the name of the “certifying agent” on the info panel. Foods of this category can display that coveted green/white or black/white  USDA organic label.

For a product to be labeled as simply “organic,” then up to five percent (excluding salt and water) of the product can be of non-organic nature. The remaining 95 percent of the ingredients must be certified organic. Foods meeting these criterion can also display the green/white or black/white USDA organic label.

For a product claiming it is “made with” organic ingredients, at least 70 percent (but, assumedly, usually no more than 94 percent, of the ingredients list must by certified organic (excluding salt and water).  Products with this label claim are allowed to note up to three “made with” ingredients, i.e. “made with organic flour, blueberries, and buckwheat.” Foods falling under this category can display the certifying agent’s logo, but can’t use the USDA organic label.

Anything lower than the 70 percent certified organic threshold can’t display the word “organic” on the “principal display panel.” Individual organic ingredients can be listed in the ingredients section only if they’re certified. And the rest of the ingredients? According to the USDA, “The remaining non-organic ingredients are produced without using prohibited practices (genetic engineering, for example) but can include substances that would not otherwise be allowed in 100% organic products.” In other words, it could potentially be a “who knows what else is in there?” kind of situation. Tread carefully, Green Monsters.

Some other important organic distinctions to remember: words and phrases like free-range, cage-free, natural, grass-fed, pasture-raised, humane, anti-biotic-free, or no added hormones can be used in tandem with the organic label, but the words and terms themselves more often than not have very little to do with whether the product was farmed or processed organically.

Also, take note that farms that sell less than $5,000 in organic foods per year don’t need to be certified (meaning that that tiny local farmer you buy tomatoes from sometimes making an organic claim doesn’t necessarily have anyone monitoring his use of the term, people).

And, guess who else doesn’t need to be certified? Retail food establishments – meaning most grocery stores can’t really call themselves certified organic. Here are the official guidelines for these places: “If your operation is a retail food establishment, such as a grocery store, it does not need to be certified. You may sell certified organic products that bear the USDA organic seal, as long as you don’t process them.” Retail food establishments can process organic products, but the USDA mandates that they must “prevent commingling with non-organic products and contact with prohibited substances” and “not use the USDA organic seal or refer to processed products as certified organic.”

If you’re wondering what “processing” means to the USDA, this covers everything from “cooking” to “baking” or even “otherwise enclosing food in a container.” So, this means that unless your grocery store becomes “certified organic,” it can’t really claim to be so, guys (But, if you’re wondering, yes, Whole Foods is one of the nation’s only “certified organic” grocers, meaning, in the words of the Whole Foods Market Organic Certification Manager, Courtney Mudge:  “Basically, our certification means that we ensure the organic integrity of the organic products we sell from the time they reach our stores until they are safely tucked into your shopping cart.” It involves the store’s sanitation processes, whether or not non-organic products touch organic products, team training, and so forth.)

Now, fast forward to other situations you might find yourself in, such as shopping at a new or unfamiliar grocery store that doesn’t have clear distinctions. If you’re in a produce situation where foods aren’t labeled and you’re just not sure, check the code number found on the small sticker attached to the food, or, the “PLU” code:  If you find 5 digits, starting with a 9: the produce was grown organically. If you locate 4 digits, starting with a 3 or 4: the produce was grown conventionally And 5 digits, starting with an 8? The produce was genetically modified. Yikes!

It can be complicated navigating all of the various nuances of the organic phraseology. Believe it or not, though, some countries around the world have even more complicated processes (if you’re interested in how other countries certify foods as organic, check out this great overview from The Daily Green. ) We can indeed rejoice that there are some pretty clear guidelines set forth by how the word/terms are used in the U.S. – and that, with the increasing demand for cleaner organic products, availability is at an all-time high – but we should also note how different the products bearing the word can actually be – 100 percent to 70 percent is actually a pretty large range, and, I don’t know about you, but I don’t want my food to be 30 percent who-knows-what-this-really-is ingredients.

Your best bet? If you can, stick to the 100 percent or at least “organic” foods bearing the USDA label. If you’re shopping directly from a farm, ask for details on its processes (keeping in mind that $5,000 per year number mentioned earlier). Also, note that even 100 percent organic doesn’t necessarily mean no chemicals whatsoever (the USDA allows some solutions in line with its standards: read more here.)

But, above all, Green Monsters: keep your eyes open. Continue to scrutinize labeling terms, and don’t ever settle for information and terms that are not clearly defined (with numbers) when considering what you feed to yourself and your family.

Image Source: Tim Psych/Flickr

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2 comments on “What Those Labels Really Mean: ‘Organic’ (and All Its Variations)”

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Monique Tavera
3 Years Ago

Very true


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Dee Riccio
3 Years Ago

Yes I do buy..I was surprised to find out that organic growers can use some non organic pesticides..I also grow my own food year round cause I live in Florida...I grow organic but know that the soil under my raised beds is not organic..


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