What Does Organic Really Mean?

What is Organic?

There is a constant debate regarding the importance of organic products, what that label actually means, and what benefits are derived from changing our diets to include organic foods.  The organic industry is worth $23 billion and is growing at a rapid pace.  

Every major food company now has an organic division. There's more capital going into organic agriculture than ever before. - Michael Pollan

Organic is a term used for food and produce grown and produced without the use of pesticides, synthetic modifiers, genetic modifiers, or ionizing radiation, and for animals raised without antibiotics and growth hormones.  

USDA OrganicPhoto courtesy of organic.org.

The USDA Organic label (shown here)  is one way that you can look out for organic products.  For single ingredient products this will be a sticker or seal directly on the product.  For multiple ingredient products there are several tiers of organic.  

100% Organic - Foods made with all organic ingredients.

Organic - Foods contain 95-99% organic ingredients by weight.

Made with Organic Ingredients - Foods contain 70-94% organic ingredients.  These products do not bear the USDA Organic seal but may list up to three organic ingredients on the front of the package.  

Other - Foods contain <70% organic ingredients.  These products may only list organic ingredients on the nutrition information panel of the packaging.  

Things to Keep in Mind

Use of the USDA Organic seal is voluntary even if a producer is certified organic.  While this is not a common practice, reading the nutrition label is the only way to know the extent of organic ingredients in a product.  

On the other hand, becoming certified organic is a costly process and many small farms cannot afford to go through it.  This means that if you buy produce from a farmer's market or a store that supports local agriculture they may not be certified organic but may use organic practices.


The USDA Organic label has come under fire recently.  Lobbyists have been getting their way with lawmakers to broaden the regulations regarding organic products, allowing more chemicals to fall under the "organic" umbrella, in turn allowing companies to use the organic seal on products that may not be truly organic.  In addition, components to the original organics law have been made optional for companies, such as annual pesticides testing.  Should we consider this a means to an end?  Soft regulations exist as organics become mainstream, [hopefully] only to be tightened up as people speak up for their rights?  Or is this the direction organics is going to take?  "Organic" may not really be organic, while consumers believe they are getting healthy and safely grown food.  

It's a very confusing world to navigate, and the face of organics is constantly being debated and manipulated by lawmakers, consumers, farmers, supermarkets, and food conglomerates.  Hopefully as the market continues to grow we'll slowly figure it out.  

The ultimate goal in this country surrounding food and nutrition isn't necessarily that all consumers make the same food decisions (organic vs. non-organic, fast food vs. slow food) or even that they always make healthy decisions, but rather that they make informed decisions.