Guidelines for Organic Products: What Do They Mean for You?

Organically grown produce commands a prominent spot and premium price at the market. But, do you really know what the word "organic" means? Government regulations define the term and help consumers know what they are getting when they select organic products.

What Does Organic Mean?

People have different ideas about what organic means. Some may think that organic means that the food is more nutritious. Others people believe it means cleaner and safer. Still others say that the key benefit is the effect on the environment and has been grown or made using principles and practices that are less likely to pollute or damage air, soil, and water

Although organic farming practices may include benefits that go beyond the plants and animals grown and harvested using these practices, they can—and do—vary. Complicating the situation even further is the fact that many states have their own laws regulating organic practices and products.

How Is "Organic" Defined?

The US Department of Agriculture (USDA) created a rule that describes the methods, practices, and substances that farmers and producers can use when they grow and handle organic crops and processed items. The rule also lists prohibited substances and practices, including controversial ones, such as genetically modified organisms (GMOs), sludge fertilizer, and irradiation.

Milk provides a good example of how comprehensive the standard is. In order to receive the label "organic," milk can only come from cows fed 100% organic grain. The grain cannot come from genetically engineered seed, and it cannot have been fertilized with sludge. The cows may not be given antibiotics or growth hormones. The milk can be pasteurized or fortified with vitamins, but it cannot be irradiated or shipped in tankers that carry other milk in between runs of non-organic milk.

Look for the Seal of Approval

If you are interested in buying organically-grown food, look for the USDA's seal. This seal tells you that authorities certify the product as organic. There are 4 categories of organic products on your grocer's shelves:

  • "100% Organic" (nothing in these products can be non-organic)
  • "Organic" (95-99% of the ingredients must be organic)
  • "Made with organic ingredients" (70%-94% of ingredients are organic)
  • For products with less than 70% organic ingredients, the word organic may only appear on the ingredient information panel.

No matter what your reason is for buying organic food, by looking for the USDA's seal, you can gain more information about the product and make a well-informed decision about what you choose to eat.


USDA National Organic Program


Dietitians of Canada


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Accessed April 29, 2016.
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Organic certification. Department of Agriculture website. Available at: Accessed April 29, 2016.
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Updated October 24, 2013. Accessed April 29, 2016.
Last reviewed April 2016 by Michael Woods, MD
Last Updated: 4/29/2016

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