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Organic Food Labels: What they Really Mean

Understanding the Labelling and Certification of Organic Foods

Organic food label

Organic food tends to contain more nutrients, fewer pesticides, and no GMOs, and organically raised animals are not given antibiotics, growth hormones, or fed animal byproducts. Switching to an organic diet can help improve your mental and emotional health, reduce your exposure to unhealthy toxins, improve the environment, and even help with food allergens and gastro-intestinal problems. But shopping for organic foods is not always simple. Food labels can be confusing, misleading, and sometimes deliberately deceptive. To ensure you’re really getting what you pay for, it’s important to understand what the different organic food labels really mean.

Understanding organic food labels

What do the food labels such as “organic,” "natural," "free-range," and "non-GMO" really mean? Understanding this terminology is essential when you’re shopping for organic foods.

The most important point to remember is that "natural" does not equal organic. "Natural" or “all natural” on packaged food are unregulated terms that can be applied by anyone, whereas organic certification means that set production standards have been met. These production standards vary from country to country—in the U.S., for example, only the "USDA Organic" label indicates that a food is certified organic. Similar certification labels are also offered on organic products in other parts of the world, including the European Union, Canada, and Australia.

USDA certified organic food labels in the U.S.

When you’re shopping for organic foods in the U.S., look for the “USDA Organic” seal. Only foods that are 95 to 100 percent organic (and GMO-free) can use the USDA Organic label.

100% Organic – Foods that are completely organic or made with 100% organic ingredients may display the USDA seal.

Organic – Foods that contain at least 95% organic ingredients may display the USDA seal.

Made with organic ingredients – Foods that contain at least 70% organic ingredients will not display the USDA seal but may list specific organic ingredients on the front of the package.

Contains organic ingredients – Foods that contain less than 70% organic ingredients will not display the USDA seal but may list specific organic ingredients on the information panel of the package.

Certified organic and small farms

Keep in mind that even if a producer is certified organic in the U.S., the use of the USDA Organic label is voluntary. At the same time, not everyone goes through the rigorous process of becoming certified, especially smaller farming operations. When shopping at a farmers’ market, for example, don’t hesitate to ask the vendors how their food was grown.

Non-GMO labels

Genetically Modified Organisms (GMOs) or genetically engineered (GE) foods are plants or animals whose DNA has been altered in ways that cannot occur in nature or in traditional crossbreeding, most commonly in order to be resistant to pesticides or produce an insecticide.  The introduction of GMOs has had a profound effect on the level of pesticides present on and in our food, and potentially on our health and the environment.

In the U.S., GMOs are commonly found in crops such as soybeans, alfalfa, squash, zucchini, papaya, and canola, and are present in many breakfast cereals and much of the processed food that we eat. If the ingredients on a package include corn syrup or soy lecithin, chances are it contains GMOs.

Shopping for non-GMO foods in the U.S.

In most countries, organic crops contain no GMOs and organic meat comes from animals raised on organic, GMO-free feed.

When shopping for GMO-free food products in the U.S. and Canada, look for the Non-GMO Project Verified seal, which means that no more than 0.9% of the product is genetically engineered. See the Resources section below for a database of foods verified as non-GMO, available online and in a smartphone app.

Foods labeled “GMO free” or “Non-GMO” – Without the seal, foods labeled with these terms have NOT necessarily undergone independent verification.

Meat and dairy labels

In the U.S., the organic label is the most regulated term, but when it comes to meat we often see many other terms used. In order to make informed choices, it is helpful to know what some of these terms mean.

Natural or all natural – This label means “minimally processed” and that the meat can’t have any artificial colors, artificial flavors, preservatives, or any other artificial ingredients in it. Animals can still be given antibiotics or growth enhancers and meat can be injected with salt, water, and other ingredients. For example, this term can be applied to all raw cuts of beef since they aren’t processed. The natural label does not reflect how the animal was raised or fed, which makes it fairly meaningless.

Naturally raised – This claim should be followed by a specific statement, such as “naturally raised without antibiotics or growth hormones” in order to obtain USDA approval. Read different labels carefully to understand what naturally raised really means to the piece of meat you’re buying.

Grass-fed – This term claims that the animals are fed solely on a diet of grass or hay and have continuous access to the outdoors. Cattle are naturally ruminants that eat grass, so they tend to be healthier and leaner when fed this way. In addition, grass fed beef has been shown to have more of the healthy omega-3 fatty acids. However, if meat is labeled as grass fed but not certified organic, the animal may have been raised on pasture that was exposed to or treated with synthetic pesticides or fertilizers.

Free-range or free-roaming – Broadly, this term means that the animals weren’t confined to a cage and had access to the outdoors. Unfortunately, there are no requirements for the amount of time the animals spend outdoors or for the size of the outdoor space available. The terms free-range or free-roaming also don’t apply to egg-laying hens. While it’s difficult to tell exactly what free range means on meat packaging, you can contact the producer directly for clarification.

Cage-free – The term means that egg-laying hens are not raised in cages. However, it does not necessarily mean they have access to the outdoors. Some eggs may carry the American Humane Certified label but many cage-free claims are not certified, making it a very misleading label.

Pasture-raised – This claims that the animals were not raised in confinement and had year-round access to the outside. Again, there are no requirements for exactly how much time the animals spend outside or the size of the outdoor space available, so it can be misleading.

No hormones added or hormone-free – This term indicates that animals are raised without the use of any added growth hormones. For beef and dairy products it can be helpful, but by law in the U.S., poultry, veal calves, and pigs cannot be given hormones, so don’t pay extra for chicken, veal, or pork products that use this label.

Certified Humane Raised and Handled – This is a voluntary certification regulated by the Humane Farm Animal Care, a non-profit organization aimed at ensuring the humane treatment of farm animals. The label means that animals have ample space, shelter, and gentle handling to limit stress, ample fresh water, and a diet without added antibiotics or hormones. Animals must be able to roam around and root without ever being confined to cages, crates, or tie stalls.

Can you trust organic labels?

When you compare prices between conventionally-grown and organic products, it can seem that having an organic label is a license to raise prices. As in any industry, there have been cases of fraud with companies misusing the organic label. However, there's little evidence that such fraud is widespread for products originating in the United States. Third-party certifiers test a certain percentage of an organic company’s product each year and while they’re actually paid by the companies they certify, their work is audited by the USDA. The same testing may not apply to some overseas-sourced foods, though, so it’s important to look at the country of origin when buying organic.

More concerning to some food advocacy and environmental groups is not the fraudulent use of organic labels but rather the integrity of the USDA Certified Organic label itself. Federal guidelines do allow for the use of some synthetic substances in organic crop production. Not all are harmful but some people believe this undermines the value of the organic certification process.

Short of growing it yourself, it’s difficult to ever feel totally confident about the source of your food. But buying locally organic products from a farmers’ market, for example, does give you the opportunity to directly ask questions about how the food was grown. If you have a hard time getting satisfactory answers, be suspicious.

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Resources and references

Understanding organic labels

Certified Organic Label Guide – Information on the significance and how to make sense of the USDA Organic label. (Organic.org)

Labeling Organic Products (PDF) – Information on organic labeling in the U.S. (USDA, National Organic Program)

What's in a Meat Label? Understanding the different labels on meat and poultry. (Berkeley Wellness)

Can You Trust That Organic Label On Imported Food? Looks at cases of organic fraud and how the USDA monitors organic labels. (NPR)

Allowed & Prohibited Substances – List of substances allowed and prohibited for food to earn the certified organic label. (USDA)

Meat labels in the U.S.

A Brief Guide to Meat and Dairy Labels and Their Relevance to Animal Welfare – (The Humane Society of the United States)

GMOs and pesticides

GMO Facts – Frequently asked questions on the use and safety of GMOs. (Non GMO Project)

Where GMOs hide in your food – Details tests that found GMOs in many packaged foods—including those labeled 'natural,' (Consumer Reports)

The Problem with Pesticides – Examines some of the potential health effects of pesticides. (Toxics Action Center)

Genetic Engineering in Agriculture – Article that highlights why both the risks and the benefits of GMOs may have been exaggerated. (Union of Concerned Scientists)

Find Non-GMO Foods – Database of foods verified as non-GMO, including an iPhone app shopping guide. (Non GMO Project)

Benefits of organic food

Health Benefits – Information on various topics related to the benefits of organics. (Organic Trade Association)

Local food

What is local? – How to buy and eat local food and why it matters. (Sustainable Table)

Organic food buying tips

Shopper's Guide to Pesticides (PDF) – List of the produce with the highest and lowest pesticide levels. (Environmental Working Group)

From our readers:

“I loved your article on organic foods. It was really helpful where you showed specifically what foods were better organic, and which weren't, as I've had some confusion along those lines.” ~ New York

Authors: Lawrence Robinson, Jeanne Segal, Ph.D., and Robert Segal, M.A. Last updated: December 2016.