Understanding Organic Food Labels


When you look at food packages, there is a term called “organic” which you might find within the ingredient lists or nutrition details. Thus, having knowledge about what “organic” actually means could help buyers to select products deliberately when purchasing from a store next time. In addition, understand organic food labels can ensure you are truly buying organic products. Find out more about organic food labels, what different organic food labels mean and how reliable they are.

What Are Organic Food Labels

Organic Food Labels are certified by United States Department of Agriculture (USDA). These labels are given to those food products that are produced considering the federal guidelines focusing on factors like soil condition, weed control and how animals were raised. To produce organic products reliability on natural substances, biological or mechanical agriculture methods is observed to maximum possible use. These methods help to support ecological balance and conservation of biodiversity. Organic methods of farming do not allow excessive use of artificial fertilizers, pesticides, insecticides and herbicides, resulting in the conservation of natural ecosystems. When fewer artificial substances are used in agriculture, the impact on animals and human beings living nearby these agriculture fields decrease. In addition to this, organic methods lead to less pollution, better soil condition, water preservation and reduced ground water pollution.

It is necessary to avoid the application of restricted substances on soil for almost three years before the yield is harvested, to be categorized as a certified organic product (McEvoy). The substances that are prohibited to apply on soil contain pesticides and artificial fertilizers. Sometimes, the producer might have to use artificial substances for a particular reason, then it should be approved so that it doesn’t harm human beings as well as the atmosphere. The animals should be raised organically and given 100% organic feedstuff and forage (Organic Production and Handling Standards). Moreover, hormone and antibiotic injections are to be avoided to make sure their production is also organic e.g. organic meat.

Crop rotation, cover crops and tillage practices should be done for maintaining soil fertility and nutrition. The use of genetic engineering and sewage sludge is strictly restricted by USDA. These standards are regularized by private certification companies which are responsible to certify organic producers. In case these standards are violated, legal action can be taken against the producers.

Different Kinds of Organic Food Labels

Organic Food Labels - USDA
Organic food labels are of four kinds, let’s see what these labels demonstrate (Organic Labels Explained);

100 Percent Organic Food Label

In this kind of organic label, the products must be produced by 100 percent organic process and organic ingredients. USDA organic seal and the name of a certifying agent should be written on this label.

Organic Food Label

Organic category of food label must include products and its ingredients that are certified organic. Non-organic ingredients should be in compliance with the National List of Allowed and Prohibited Substances. Non-organic constituents could be used at most 5 Percent of all ingredients in these type of products and the remaining 95 percent should be certified organic ingredients. Genetically modified organisms (GMO) are completely prohibited in this kind of label even if the ingredients are non- organic. Moreover, USDA organic seal and the name of certifying agent should be incorporated in the label.

Made with Organic

Multi-ingredient products fall into this kind of label where a product should contain no more than 30 percent of non-certified organic ingredients. These products not characterized as organic products. 30 percent of ingredients might not be organic but should not be produced through prohibited methods such as genetic engineering and compliance of these ingredients with National list of Allowed and Prohibited Substances is necessary. Use of sewage sludge or irradiation is also not allowed in the production of non-organic ingredients. Moreover, specification of organic ingredients and USDA organic seal is not permitted for these products. Non-Agricultural ingredients such as baking soda and enzymes, used in baked products and yogurt respectively should be listed in the National list as well.

Specific Organic Ingredients

Multi-ingredient products which contain less than 70 percent organic elements are categorized under the label of “Specific Organic Ingredients” (McEvoy). These products or ingredients cannot get certified and USDA organic seal is not permitted for them. Moreover, compliance with the National List of Allowed and Prohibited Substances is unnecessary for these ingredients.

Are Organic Food Labels Reliable?

Many companies use the term organic for their products to increase their demand and sell these products for high prices. It is important for the customers to identify which products are fake and falsely labeled as organic.

To check whether the product is reliable, labels should be read thoroughly by buyers. If the product has USDA organic seal, is certified organic and the ingredients it contains are at least 95 Percent organic, then it is completely reliable. If organic ingredients are less than 95 Percent, then USDA organic seal is not permitted to that product.

Understanding the label

Organic Food
Buyers should have knowledge of different types of labels as well, to make an informed purchase decision. Sometimes products are labeled as “natural” which can be deceiving as it has a similar meaning as organic, but consumers should consciously check for only organic labels.

Though it is must for companies to show integrity, but frauds are practiced by many producers nowadays making it difficult for consumers to rely on such products. So, the easiest way to save oneself from these deceptions is having prior knowledge about organic labels.

In addition to consumers, organic food labels are important for producers as well. The producers of organic products will gain the maximum trust of consumers through USDA organic labels and certifications. This will result in more sales as people are willing to pay for genuine organic products as they are healthier, full of flavor, and GMO free.

Learn more about organic and organic food for further understanding.

McEvoy, Miles. “Organic 101: What the USDA Organic Label Means.” USDA. 13 Mar. 2019. Web. 26 Feb. 2021.
McEvoy, Miles. “Understanding the USDA Organic Label.” USDA. 21 Feb. 2017. Web. 26 Feb. 2021.
Organic Labels Explained. United States Department of Agriculture, Apr. 2018. PDF.
Organic Production and Handling Standards. National Organic Progam, Oct. 2011. PDF.
Author: Monica Chang
On my own ethical journey since 2010. Always happy to learn more!