What Does 'Organic' Mean?

Food labels can be surprisingly complicated to understand.
'Organic' doesn't necessarily mean 'healthy.'
'Organic' doesn't necessarily mean 'healthy.' / David McNew/GettyImages
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By Maggie Koerth-Baker

According to the Organic Trade Association, organic foods have become a $60 billion industry. And a quick scan of the grocery store aisles seems to confirm that. But the more people buy into it, the bigger the question becomes: What exactly does organic mean?

What does organic really mean?

You’ve probably noticed by now that organic products tend to be pricey. That’s partially because federal certification costs money, and partially because the right to use the word organic requires meeting the USDA standards that were set in 2002. Even imported foods have to be up to government snuff before they can be called organic.

photo of packages of orgainc lettuce and spinach in a grocery store
You'll see 'organic' labels in many grocery stores nowadays. / Scott Olson/GettyImages

The USDA rules are pretty stringent. To be certified as organic, farmers can’t use prohibited synthetic fertilizers, pesticides, or hormones for three full years before applying. Further, any animals they have must be raised on organic foods. Genetically modified crops are a no-no, as are farming practices that cause high levels of pollution. Even the shipping and processing procedures are monitored. Organic foods have to be kept separate from non-organics until they arrive in the grocery store.

It’s up to the non-governmental agencies that are certified by the USDA to determine whether or not a product gets to use the organic label. They monitor every step of the system, and in the end, they’re the ones who slap that big “O” on the finished product.

Although the USDA criteria cover a lot of ground, many people feel the organic label should mean more. For example, some say it should cover how humanely the animals are treated. While many organic farmers treat their animals well as a matter of principle, the USDA’s stance on the matter was historically flimsy, though new regulations were recently put into place to help improve livestock welfare.

Organic farms also don’t have to be owned by mom and pop. Large-scale, corporate organic farms are now common. While critics complain that these big farms betray organic ideals by using monoculture practices that deplete the soil, the fact is that multinational conglomerates have quietly bought out many organic food suppliers.

War of the Words

Concerns about the USDA’s organic label have intensified in recent decades. In August 2008, the organization announced that 15 organic monitoring agencies weren’t implementing USDA standards and threatened to close them down if changes weren’t made within the year. In 2023, the USDA again strengthened the oversight and enforcement of organic regulations.

The fact that non-organic foods have been allowed to slip under the organic label has also frustrated groups. Until 2007, it was permissible for only five predetermined non-organic ingredients to appear in certified organic products, and even then, they could only make up 5 percent of the total ingredients. Dozens of non-organic ingredients have been given a pass, including several food colorings, pig-intestine sausage casings, and hops. This has pushed some hardcore organic lovers over the edge. Tired of fighting for control of the label they created, some want to replace organic with new terms, such as authentic food and conservation agriculture.

Organic Farming: Advantages and Disadvantages

These days, there’s another debate raging around organic foods. Although they may benefit health-conscious consumers in the Global North, critics say organic foods don’t help the rest of the planet. Agronomist Norman Borlaug, who won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1970 for introducing life-saving farming techniques to poor countries, doubts that organics can feed the world. He maintained that the problem is output. A 2002 study published in Science found that while organic farms use 50 percent less fertilizer and 97 percent fewer pesticides than conventional farms, they produce 20 percent less food. Borlaug believed that if the entire world switched to organic farming, we’d need three times as much farmland to feed everyone.

photo of organic food at a vegan store
Not everyone thinks organic food is the best solution. / Spencer Platt/GettyImages

But organic supporters say this is bogus. The Minnesota Institute for Sustainable Agriculture points out that hunger is more about poverty and access to food, problems that have nothing to do with pesticides and artificial fertilizer. What’s more, the data on output isn’t cut and dry. In 2000, after reviewing multiple studies that compared organic and conventional farms, Christos Vasilikiotis of UC Berkeley found that organic farms kept up with their chemically dependent counterparts, so long as they were run efficiently.

Right now, only one thing is certain about the future of the organic-food industry: As long as there’s organic food being processed, there will be arguments about how best to label it.

How to Understand Food Labels

Need a dictionary to understand the labels on your food? Well, it won’t help. The hair-splitting semantics of the food industry could dumbfound the best of linguists. Lucky for you, we’ve broken it down right here.

Label: “100% Organic,” featuring the classy USDA seal
What’s inside? Nothing but USDA-certified organic ingredients.

Label: “Organic,” with the USDA seal
What’s inside? Food made with at least 95 percent USDA organic ingredients.

Label: “Made with organic _______,” without the USDA seal
What’s inside? Food made with at least 70 percent USDA organic ingredients.

Label: “All-Natural” or “Natural”
What’s inside? That depends. By USDA standards, “natural” meat can’t contain artificial flavoring, coloring, chemical preservatives, or synthetic ingredients, but the animals can be raised with hormones and antibiotics. Other foods with the “natural” label? That’s tougher. It’s supposed to mean there are no synthetic or artificial ingredients, but nobody officially monitors the process.

Label: “No Chemicals Added”
What’s inside? Nobody knows.

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This article originally appeared in mental_floss magazine and was published online in 2011; it has been updated for 2024.