One of the most common misconceptions I hear about organic food—and food in general, really—is that you can’t trust the label. It’s an alluring myth, and one that I’ll admit I used to believe. But while there are still certain ways that companies try to use labels to mislead consumers (such as calling ingredients by new and/or unfamiliar names), the USDA and FDA do have strict regulations in place that are meant to protect the consumer. This is especially true in the organic market, where the National Organic Program (NOP) has set specific standards for how products can be labeled and marketed.
Therefore, the key to understanding what is in your food is learning to decipher the package.
Please note: While I used to work as an organic inspector for a state-sponsored organic certification program, this information is not legal advice and should not be treated as such. I do not represent the National Organic Program, the USDA, or the FDA, and program rules and regulations do change.
What does Organic really mean, anyway?
Many people believe that food handlers can slap anything they want on a label and call it good, whether it’s true or not. The term “natural”, for instance, is tossed around like confetti, even by products that contain GMOs. In fact, the FDA does not have an official definition of “natural.”
The term “organic”, however, is defined—and protected by law. That definition is:
Organic production. A production system that is managed in accordance with the Act and regulations in this part to respond to site-specific conditions by integrating cultural, biological, and mechanical practices that foster cycling of resources, promote ecological balance, and conserve biodiversity. (7 CFR §205.2)
There’s a very lengthy document that outlines exactly what “integrating cultural, biological, and mechanical practices” means in certified organic production. I won’t bore you with all the details (at least not in this post), but the most important thing to know for understanding your food labels is that organic food can’t be produced using prohibited substances, such as antibiotics in the case of animal products, pesticides in the case of crops, or certain additives in the case of processed goods.
100% Organic Vs. Organic
In organic food labeling, the exact percentage of organic ingredients determines how a product can be labeled and marketed. There are three different types of organic food products: 100% Organic, Organic, and Made with Organic.
This one is exactly what it sounds like. Products can be labeled as 100% organic as long as their ingredients and processing aids are all—you guessed it—100% organically produced. Go figure.
Bonus tip: Water and salt don’t count as organic ingredients, so they’ll never be listed as organic. That means you’ll also never see organic salt for sale, and if anyone tries to sell you organic water, offer to trade your pet yeti for it.
Products marketed as Organic must contain at least 95% organically produced ingredients and processing aids. The remaining ingredients must either be non-agricultural products that are on the National List of Allowed Substances, or ingredients that aren’t available in an organic variety but have been produced without the use of prohibited substances. In other words, a food producer can’t just include whatever non-organic ingredient they want as long as it doesn’t exceed 5% of the total product. They can only use specific ingredients that are listed in 7 CFR §205.605 or .606.
100% organic products can also be labeled as just “organic”, so an easy way to see just how organic a product is is to check the ingredients list. Organic ingredients in Organic products all have to be identified on the ingredient list, either as “organic _____” or by using an identifying mark such as an asterisk that is defined immediately after the list of ingredients. So a product that lists only organic ingredients is 100% organic, while those that list other non-organic ingredients are at least 95% organic.
Made With Organic _____
If a product is labeled as “Made with Organic”, it must contain at least 70% organic ingredients. Those products can list the organic ingredients used (i.e. “Made with Organic Milk, Eggs, and Flour”) and state the percentage of organic ingredients (i.e. “Made with 80% organic ingredients”), but they cannot display the USDA Organic seal.
Less than 70% Organic
Products that contain less than 70% organic ingredients can’t make any claims to organic status and they can’t use the USDA Organic seal. They can, however, list organic products the same way as described earlier, so if you see an ingredient list that randomly lists something like “organic kelp”, they’re (probably) not just making stuff up.
Organic Integrity Database
Unfortunately, there are some unscrupulous individuals out there who may try to pass off non-organic products as organic. Thankfully, the USDA and accredited certifying bodies are pretty good at catching the cheaters, and there are stiff penalties. Anyone caught using the USDA Organic seal on a non-certified product, for instance, can face fines of up to $11,000 for each violation.
If you suspect a product isn’t really organic—or even if you just want to verify that a company is certified—you can check their organic status at the USDA’s Organic Integrity Database. It’s free, and you can search for farms and processing facilities by name, state, and products.
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 I printed it out, and it’s 68 pages long…
 There is one exception to this rule. Producers who make less than $5000 in organic sales each year aren’t required to be certified, but they must follow all the same rules as those producers who are.