The Truth in Organic Food Labels

What’s In a Label

Organic food labels, what exactly do they mean? Many of the labeling terms seem self-explanatory, however, the underlying reality is that the terms are not necessarily straightforward. Amongst nutrition facts, lists of ingredients, and dietary claims. “organic” is just one more piece of information to decipher. It says “organic” so what else do I really need to know?

Truth in Organic Food Label

Understanding the requirements for each type of label designation will help you to make an informed decision in providing the best quality food for you and your family. Let’s start at the beginning.

How Organic Labeling Began

Concerned with the standards of industrial farming practices, which include livestock riddled with antibiotics, crops fraught with pesticides, and little concern for the ecosystem, a few farmers got together to determine a way to communicate their holistic approach to farming to the masses. Soon after, random certifying agencies were created to identify requirements for organic farming.

Organic Labeling

Each state, however, had its own definition of organic and the requirements needed to obtain certification. So once again, organic farmers came together and asked the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) to create a national standard. From this, the Organic Foods Production Act of 1990 was created and the organic label was born. Cultivation must follow approved practices and approved substances and are subject to inspection.

Today, the National Organic Standards Board (NOSB), a group of 15 volunteers from diverse backgrounds, (e.g. environmentalists, biologists, botanists, organic farmers, attorneys, and public interest advocates) oversees the USDA organic label. The NOSB makes recommendations on the numerous requirements that make up an organic label. They also review all substances on the National List of Allowed and Prohibited Substances, every five years, confirming if the substance still meets the required criteria.

USDA Certified Organic

All food products in the United States labeled as “organic” must be certified by a USDA accredited agency. USDA Organic labeled products will typically have the USDA Organic seal. In order to display this designation, products must meet the following criteria:

USDA Organic Labeling

Plant Foods: Plants must have no genetically modified organisms (GMO’s). Grown without synthetic fertilizers, or prohibited pesticides, and have not been irradiated.

Animal Products: Animals must be raised in a humane way that meets or exceeds basic animal health and welfare standards. Must have access to the outdoors, free from antibiotics, and raised on 100% organic feed.

Organic Label

Processed Foods: 95% of its contents must be derived from organic plant and animal products.

The USDA Certified Organic Seal consists of three distinct labeling categories for organic products.

100% Organic: Contains only ingredients that are certified organic, including anything used in processing, (processing aids are regulated). Packages must display the name of the certifying agent; however, the use of USDA Organic Seal is optional.

Organic: Products must contain a minimum of 95% certified organic ingredients (excluding salt and water). The remaining ingredients must be on the USDA’s National List of Allowed Substances if they meet other criteria such as non-GMO. The certifying agent must be displayed on all packages. USDA Organic Seal is optional.

Made with Organic Ingredients: In the “made with” category, products must contain at least 70% certified organic ingredients, (excluding salt and water). There is no requirement that the remainder of ingredients is organically produced, however, they must be formulated without excluded methods such as genetic engineering per the USDA’s National List of Allowed Substances. Up to three organic ingredients or types of food may be on the “Made With Organic…” label and may also state the percentage of organic ingredients. The USDA Organic Seal is prohibited.


Certified Organic, Inc: A USDA accredited organic certifier since 2002.

Cage-Free: For eggs, this means that the hens were not raised in caged housing systems. This does not mean that they had access to the outdoors. For chickens, this means they are raised in “growout” houses where the space per bird is less than one square foot.

Truth in Labeling

Certified Humane Raised and Handled: The producer meets their animal care standards for farm animals from birth through slaughter. Animals are free to roam and do what comes naturally. Raised without growth hormones or antibiotics and are fed quality feed.

Certified Naturally Grown: Based on the National Organic Program (NOP) designed for medium to large-sized agricultural organizations, CNG was created specifically for small farmers. This private non-profit organization is not affiliated with the NOP. Based on the participatory guarantee system (PGS) model, inspections are carried out by other farmers which enables farmer-to-farmer knowledge resulting in sharing best practices and strengthening the farming community. In doing so, this minimizes paperwork, keeps dues affordable, and is completely transparent and open to the public. CNG’s website profiles each producer along with their application signed declaration and images of the inspection reports.

No synthetic herbicides, pesticides, fertilizers, or genetically modified organisms are used. CNG livestock is required to be raised primarily on pasture where they are free to move about. Feed must not contain any synthetic ingredients or genetically modified seeds.

Non-GMO Label

Free-Range: This one is a bit misleading as it implies that the animals were able to move about freely outdoors; however, this claim does not have to be verified through farm inspections. As long as the animals are given some access to the outdoors, regardless of size (for chickens, the outside area does not need to accommodate all of the birds) they are considered free-range.

Free Range, Pasture Raised

Fair Trade: Designed to assist producers in growing countries to partake in sustainable and equitable trade relationships. This global movement is made up of diverse producers, companies, consumers, advocates, and organizations that are committed to putting people and the planet first.

Natural: This claim can appear as ‘natural, ‘all natural’, or ‘100% natural’ and gives the implication that the product contains no artificial ingredients. Alarmingly, there is no legal definition for the term so each company can define it differently. In the case of meat and poultry, the formal meaning is that the meat is only minimally processed without any artificial flavors, preservatives, or other ingredients, although it may still contain “natural” additives such as salt and water.

Natural Label

Guide to Food Labels.

Consumer Reports (CR) created a “Guide to Food Labels“. In this guide, CR has rated eight different seals and their claims. More impressive is their Food Label Decoder. Enter the name of the food, and your question from a drop-down box and it will then show you what label(s) to look for that match your criteria.

Bottom Line

Lessening the impact on the environment through more sustainable agriculture and humane practices is the ultimate goal, whether the grower or the consumer.

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