What is organic? Organic food labeling explained by food industry expert

What is organic?  Organic food labeling explained by food industry expert

Organic food labeling explained for you

Have you ever wondered what is organic food?  Here you will find organic food labeling explained

Organic is not just a philosophy, it is regulated terminology.  The USDA regulates the industry with strict standards.  Organic represents the methods used for growing and processing agriculture food (and other products).

When organic was established, the goal was to reduce inputs of fossil fuels and synthetic chemicals (1). 

How does the Food Industry see Organic?

As a Food Scientist, I often ask my colleagues if they eat organic food.  Typically, they chuckle and say “no”.  Many of us in the food industry see organic as a type of food marketing.

As Michael Pollan, best-selling book author and organic supporter, said in an interview with Organic Gardening,

“They’re organic by the letter, not organic in spirit… if most organic consumers went to those places, they would feel they were getting ripped off.”

Michael Pollan

However, during the COVID-19 pandemic I joined a number of webinars hosted by an organic food organization.  Discussions included the evolution of organic products, regulations, and history. 

My main takeaway was that the ideal of what organic meant 40 years ago versus what it is today has changed significantly

Luckily, there are still organic food companies whose mission is to sell products that are better for the environment.  Nevertheless, they may be the minority now, not the majority. 

What does organic mean?

First, the important thing to know is that the USDA regulates the term “organic”.  Organic represents the methods used for growing and processing agriculture food (and other products). 

Whereas, organic regulations vary from one country, in the U.S., organic crops and animal products have fixed rules and guidelines.

Behind The USDA Organic Seal
USDA Infographic Explaining the USDA Organic Seal

First, in order for products to be organic they must meet minimum requirements. 

  • Produce, meat, eggs and other food products grown without the use of synthetic pesticides, synthetic fertilizers, sewage sludge, genetically modified organisms or ionizing radiation can be organic. 
  • Antibiotics or growth hormones cannot be used for animal products including meat, poultry, eggs, and dairy products.
  • Organic standards also require that animals live in conditions that accommodate their natural behaviors and eat organic feed.

Next, producers and manufactures must apply for certification in order to use organic labeling on their product.

Tiny smiling flask with orange liquid

Organic represents the methods used for growing and processing agriculture food products.

Organic food labeling explained

Becoming familiar with organic labeling allows you to make informed decisions about the products you purchase.  Verification for USDA organic products occurs throughout the production process from farm to market. 

There are four categories for organic labeling for foods.  Two of the four categories can use the organic seal on the product.

The goal is to help you navigate organic products.  Ideally, this will help you understand what to expect from any products bearing the USDA Organic Seal or labeled as organic.

Organic categories

As mentioned, there are four distinct labeling categories for organic products.  The categories are 100 percent organic, organic, “made with” organic ingredients, and specific organic ingredients.  

USDA Organic Labels Explained
USDA Organic Labels Explained with 4 Categories
  • “100 Percent Organic” Category = all ingredients and processing aids must be certified organic.  This label is the hardest to obtain.
  • “Organic” Category = at least 95% of the product’s and ingredients are certified organic.  Non-organic ingredients are allowed from the National List of Allowed and Prohibited Substances and cannot exceed a combined total of 5% formula (or recipe).  Furthermore, the label must include the name of the certifying agent, and may include the USDA Organic Seal and/or the organic claim.
  • “Made with” Organic Category = at least 70 percent of the product’s ingredients are certified organic ingredients (excluding salt and water).  Non-agricultural ingredients are allowed from the list.  The organic seal cannot be on the product, and the final product cannot be marketed as organic.  Up to three ingredients or ingredient categories can be classified as organic.  Any remaining ingredients are not required to be organically produced but must be produced without genetic engineering.  For example, processed organic foods may contain some approved non-agricultural ingredients, like enzymes in yogurt, pectin in fruit jams, and baking soda in baked goods.
  • Organic Ingredients Category = multi-ingredient products with less than 70 percent certified organic content do not need to be certified. These products cannot display the USDA Organic Seal, use the word organic on the principal display panel, nor be marketed as organic.  They can list certified organic ingredients in the ingredient list and the percentage of those organic ingredients. 

Final thoughts on organic food

Organic is not just a attitude, it is an way of processing and manufacturing products with stringent guidelines.  When organic was established, the goal was to reduce inputs of fossil fuels and synthetic chemicals.  The use and meaning of organic has evolved overtime and may not meet that goal for all products.

Not all organic products are equal.  As required by law all suppliers use organic practices, but the whether these inputs reduce the input of fossil fuels is debatable. 

If you eat organic based on its philosophy, you may want to check that the companies you are purchasing from have the same values as you and have diligence around their supply chain.  Learn more about your food by asking questions.

What do you think? Do you eat organic?


(1) Shewfelt, Robert L. Introducing Food Science.  USA: CRC Press.  2009.

Are Organic Vegetables More Nutritious after all.  https://www.npr.org/sections/thesalt/2014/07/11/330760923/are-organic-vegetables-more-nutritious-after-all. Retrieved 19 July 2020.

Mythbusting 101: Organic Farming > Conventional Agriculture.  https://blogs.scientificamerican.com/science-sushi/httpblogsscientificamericancomscience-sushi20110718mythbusting-101-organic-farming-conventional-agriculture/.  Retrieved 19 July 2020.

Rosen, J. (2010). A Review of the Nutrition Claims Made by Proponents of Organic Food Comprehensive Reviews in Food Science and Food Safety, 9 (3), 270-277 DOI: 10.1111/j.1541-4337.2010.00108.x. Retrieved 19 July 2020.

Basker, D. (2009). Comparison of taste quality between organically and conventionally grown fruits and vegetables American Journal of Alternative Agriculture, 7 (03). Retrieved 19 July 2020.

Is Organic Farming Really better?  It depends. https://sciworthy.com/is-organic-farming-really-better-it-depends/.  Retrieved 19 July 2020.

Organic 101. https://www.usda.gov/media/blog/2012/03/22/organic-101-what-usda-organic-label-means.  Retrieved 19 July 2020.

Understanding USDA Organic Labels.  https://www.usda.gov/media/blog/2016/07/22/understanding-usda-organic-label.  Retrieved 17 August 2020.

SUBSTANCES FOR ORGANIC CROP + LIVESTOCK PRODUCTION.  https://www.ams.usda.gov/sites/default/files/media/Allowed-Prohibited%20Substances.pdf. Retrieved 17 August 2020.

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