Decoding Organic Food Labels

organicHave you ever wondered what all of those organic designations on products at your grocery store mean? Well, in 2002 the USDA started the National Organic Program in order to standardize the widely varying practices used in organics. Here are the official definitions of organics and it’s many impersonators.

100% Organic

This means that all ingredients must be certified organic and the processing aids used must be organic too. The name of the certifying agent must me on the label with can carry the USDA organic seal.


These products have to contain at least 95% certified organic ingredients. The other 5%, excluding salt and water, as well as any nonorganic processing aids (like chlorine to wash packaging equipment) must be on a national list of substances the USDA has approved to use in organics. This product also has to have a USDA Organic seal.

Made with Organic

The packaging for these items cannot include the USDA seal but at least 70% of this product must be certified organic. Any nonagricultural ingredients must be on the national list. Experts agree that the quality of these foods, even at 70% organic, is quite high.

Organic Ingredients

These are below 70% organic and it can’t claim on the packaging that it is an organic product except to list the specific ingredients that are organic on the information panel.


The USDA will not let any meat, poultry or eggs with this label have any artificial ingredients and they must be minimally processed. However, the term “natural” isn’t defined beyond those items, so buyer beware because you should assume in this case that natural really just means conventional.

Fair Trade

This is overseen by nongovernment organizations that verify that growers received minimum prices and community support from buyers and followed explicit environmental practices. However, the criteria for fair trade are not as strict as organic.

Free Range

This means that birds such as chickens are sheltered but have access to outdoors at any time along with unlimited access to food and water. Just be aware that these claims are not certified or overseen by a governing body.


Birds can roam freely inside a building or room with unlimited access to fresh water and food. They are not kept in cages but can still be kept in very close quarters, even when organic.

Grass Fed

These animals receive most of their nutrition from grass during the course of their lives but during winter may also eat grain or hay indoors. According to the USDA, these animals also still receive antibiotics and hormones.

No Added Hormones

Certified organic foods are already free of added hormones, so it’s the conventional producers that use this term. Know, however, that there is no certification for these claims on food packaging.

Used under Creative Commons Licensing courtesy of Rob Bertholf

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This article is made available for general, entertainment and educational purposes only. The opinions expressed herein do not necessarily reflect those of The Joint Corp (or its franchisees and affiliates). You should always seek the advice of a licensed healthcare professional.