Completely, Somewhat, and Almost There: Do You Know How Organic Your Food Is?

organicHow organic is it? Read closely. (TheD34n/Creative Commons)

If you’re hip to to the many reasons to shop organic—avoiding chemicals, promoting biodiversity, and supporting healthy farms, to name a few—then you’ve probably got your eye out for the O word when you hit the farmer’s market or grocery store. But do you know the difference between, say, something that’s organic versus something that’s 100 percent organic?

To be certified organic in the U.S., agricultural products must meet certain standards set by the U.S. Department o Agriculture (USDA) which include production practices, treatment, and even transportation of organic products. For example, they must be grown in safe soil and have no bioengineered genes, and they cannot have been treated with chemical additives, growth hormones, antibiotics, or sewage-sludge based fertizers. They must also be kept separate from non-organic agricultural products.

When it comes to grocery store items that contain agricultural products, however, labeling gets a little complicated.

Thanks to heavy lobbying by large-scale productions for amendments and exceptions to the use of the organic label, the word “organic” has become somewhat diluted. Amendments to the term—which have allowed those large-scale prouctions to capitalize on increasing consumer demand for organic products without meeting the full criteria—have tasked consumers with deciphering labels. Unless you know the difference, you could be getting more than you paid for.

Here’s a breakdown:


100% Organic

These are foods that are completely organic or made with 100 percent organic ingredients. This is what most consumers expect when they think organic, but not always what they get. These foods are legally permitted to use the USDA’s certified organic seal (pictured left) because they have met all criteria set forth by the USDA.


Organic foods are those that contain at least 95 percent organic ingredients, with the remaining 5 percent of ingredients limited to those that appear on the USDA’s National List of Allowable and Prohibited Materials (find more information about that list here.) Organic items are also legally allowed to display the USDA seal.

Made With Organic Ingredients

Foods with a “made with organic ingredients” label must contain at least 70 percent organic ingredients, but are not fully organic and cannot legally display the USDA organic seal. It’s common, however, for packaging on these foods to list specific organic ingredients on the front of the package; e.g., “made with organic corn”—an advertising technique that can be confusing to consumers.

Contains Organic Ingredients

These are food items that contain less than 70 percent organic ingredients. They do not display the USDA seal but may list specific organic ingredients on the information panel of the package. However, these products cannot advertise their organic ingreients to consumers like “made with organic ingredients” items can.