What Does it Mean to be Organic?
A lot of products make claims about being all natural or organic, but what does that really mean? For those of us who are concerned about what we put into our bodies, the terminology might be confusing or even a little frustrating.
Whether you’ve already made the switch to an organic diet or it’s something you’re considering, you’ll want to know the difference between the labels and what each of them means.
Here’s a breakdown to help you understand what being organic really means and what you can expect from companies that go through the effort to certify their products as organic.
USDA Organic: Understanding the Labeling
Perhaps the most important aspect of organic foods and products is the way they are produced. The idea is that most organic ingredients are produced with minimal processing and fewer harmful chemicals like certain pesticides.
The USDA has developed standards and practices that help farmers determine whether or not food items and products can be considered organic. Within these standards, there are different levels of organic certification, depending on how the products and ingredients are produced.
Here are the different organic labels you might run into and what each of them means:
- Produced with 100% certified organic ingredients and processing aids
- No GMO’s
- All ingredients comply with National List of Allowed and Prohibited Substances
- Inspected and certified by an approved USDA certifying agent
- These products can display the USDA organic seal and advertise “100% Organic”
(this is where our organic products fit)
- Contains 95% certified organic ingredients
- Products containing salt fall into this category - Salt cannot be considered organic because it's not a growable crop
- No GMO’s
- All non-organic ingredients comply with the National List
- Inspected and certified by approved USDA certifying agent
- May display the green and brown USDA organic seal
Made with Organic
- At least 70% of the ingredients are certified organic ingredients
- No GMO’s
- Non-organic ingredients still have to comply with the national list
- Certification is required
- May not display the green and brown USDA organic seal
Organic Ingredients, or Organic Claims Without Certification
- Organic seal will not be displayed
- On the main packaging, the product cannot be described as organic (except in some special cases for very small retailers)
- Products may contain GMOs
- Ingredients not required to comply with the National List
- Certification and inspection not required
If It Says It's Organic, Is It Really Organic?
Now that you understand what each label represents, how can you trust that those labels are accurate? There are many products in the USA that say they are organic but are not actually organic. The way to know the difference is to confirm that a company has been certified by a 3rd party. When claiming organic, a package must also reference the 3rd party auditor of that organic certification. If you don't see a "certified organic by..." statement on the packaging somewhere, that might be a red flag. If you know the agency, you can also confirm their organic status by searching their database. We use CCOF and our status can be checked here.
It's the responsibility of the USDA and 3rd party certifiers to confirm the legitimacy of organic products and the process is rigorous. Here’s a rundown of what that process looks like for a producer (like us) and why the USDA logo inspires confidence in so many:
- All of the ingredients and processing aids must be sourced from farms that are already certified organic or organic compliant. This means the farms that grow the raw materials do so according to organic practices regarding fertilizers, pesticides, and chemicals they are or are not allowed to use.
- Companies like us that handle and sell organic products then begin the certification process with an independent certifying agent. This is an organization that has been approved by the USDA that adhere to its standards of enforcing and granting organic certifications.
- An agent then performs an on-site inspection, visiting the location to make sure all of the company’s practices comply with organic best practices. This includes confirming things like a company’s ability to “trace back” products to ingredient (and vise-versa), the sanitation of its facility, good storage practices, food safety, and sourcing of ingredients.
- If the product meets the qualifications, the company is issued one of the organic certifications by the agent and can now produce “organic” labeled products
- Audits are performed annually to make sure the products and manufacturer are still compliant with organic guidelines and that all organic products sold are what they say they are, organic.
The next time you're in a store and see the USDA organic certification displayed on a package, you can be confident in the quality and process of what you’re getting. When in doubt, always do your research. Look to companies or manufacturers for answers about their ingredients. If more information is difficult to find, take note. Remember, you always have a right to know what you’re putting in your body.
Photos by: Bethany Szentesi, USDA,