Understanding the term “Organic”

This evening I have a post for you that I wrote a log awhile back and never hit publish on. Why? I’m not quite sure but it’s about the legalities of the word “organic.” Hope you enjoy learning a bit more about this term and what it truly means.

The term “organic has a legal label and definition, to help you understand what you are buying if you choose organic foods. The term has specific guidelines defined by the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) National Organic Program. It states that: “organic meat, poultry, eggs, and dairy products come from animals that are given no antibiotics or growth hormones. Organic plant foods are produces without using most conventional pesticides, fertilizers made with synthetic ingredients or sewage slug, bioengineering or ionizing radiation.”

There are three levels or organic claims on food labels:

  • 100% Organic: products that are completely organic or made of only organic ingredients qualify for this claim and a USDA organic seal.
  • Organic: products in which at least 95% of its ingredients are organic qualify for this claim and a USDA organic seal.
  • Made with Organic Ingredients: products in which at least 70% of ingredients are certified organic. The USDA organic seal cannot be used but made with organic ingredients may appear on its packaging.

The USDA organic seal is a green and white circle. Any product with less than 95% organic ingredients may not use the seal.



Before a food is labeled as USDA organic, it must be verified by a USDA-accredited certifying agent. Overall, organic operations “must demonstrate that they are protecting natural resources, conserving biodiversity, and using only approved substances.” There are approximately 100 certifying agents located through the USA and around the world. These agents certified approximately 30,000 organic farms and processing facilities around the world. Beginning January 1, 2013, organic certifying agents must test samples from at least 5% of the operations they certify on an annual basis.

Certification allows a farm or processing facility to sell, label, and represent their products as organic. Operations in violations with the USDA organic regulations are subject to financial penalties and suspension or revocation of their organic certificate.


Studies have found that organic and conventional foods are nutritionally the same when it comes to calories and macronutrients (fats, carbohydrates, and proteins). Recent studies have shown that in some organic growing conditions, vitamin and mineral content may be higher. It is not safe to assume that an increase in vitamin and minerals occurs in all organic food or all organic growing conditions, as the studies are highly mixed and more research is needed.


The terms organic and natural are NOT interchangeable. Stay tuned for a post about understanding the term “natural.”


When you think of the word organic, what do you think? Did anything in this post surprise you about the term?


  1. 1

    Thank you for sharing. I think this is a term that gets tossed around a lot with not much thought!

  2. 2

    I love that you took the time to educate people about this! I also think it’s great to note that “GMO Free” on a label doesn’t mean the product is organic. I would love to hear everyone’s thoughts… what they value and how many people know that “natural” doesn’t equate to organic… or even healthy sometimes.

    • 3

      Exactly. Non GMO may not be organic. Natural may not be organic. Natural really can be whatever the company wants it to mean. I’ll talk more about it in my natural post!

  3. 4

    I laugh everytime I see food labeled “natural”. Like no sh*t Sherlock, lets hope so! I wish govt regulations would require GMO labeling. It looks like big ag is winning that battle. What do RD think about corn mixed with fish DNA, and other genetically modified foods? Maybe my joke about labeling foods as “natural” isn’t so funny after all :(

    • 5

      Ohh you’ll be surprised when I write about my “natural” post then! There’s essentially no regulation for that terminology on labeling so in fact plenty of unnatural foods/ingredients may have that label on the product.

      GMOs are tricky. First of all I would definitely love labeling. Secondly, some GMOs are misunderstood and aren’t as “bad” as other GMOs. There’s a LOT of gray area. My biologist husband is actually better versed on this topic. Perhaps we should write a joint post.

  4. 8

    I was thinking the same thing about the term, “natural”, Pablo. Katie- I agree… the science behind GMO’s is misunderstood. They have really helped to feed a population and may not produce negative health consequences… I just don’t want to be the guinea pig :) Trans fats were revolutionary in their time too.

  5. 9

    Great info Katie! I didn’t realize the % breakdown of the different terms. Good to know!

  6. 11

    Thank you very much for explaining the term organic clearly. To the point and specific. Thumbs up!

  7. 13

    Thanks for sharing this. I didn’t know how that worked. I had heard there were various ways to claim to be organic but ya, who knew. It’s interesting that you can be Organic but only be 95%. If you saw that on a package and didn’t know to look for 100% Organic, you’d be tricked!

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