With more focus over the years on plant-based diets and eating “whole” foods, many times I am asked about what the term “organic” actually means. The reality is that different food products can have varying degrees of organic ingredients. Knowing what each organic food label means can be helpful in determining if it’s the best product for you.

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What is organic food?

Organic foods are produced without the aid of chemical pesticides and are processed only with natural additives. Organic meat, poultry, eggs, and dairy products come from animals that are given no antibiotics or growth hormones.

What do organic labels mean?

There are three different organic labels:

  • 100 percent organic - The product contains only organically produced ingredients (excluding water and salt) and processing aids. The product may carry the USDA Organic Seal.
  • Organic - The product consists of at least 95 percent organically produced ingredients (excluding water and salt). The product may carry the USDA Organic Seal.
  • Made with organic ingredients - The processed product must consist of at least 70 percent organic ingredients. The front product panel may display the phrase “Made with Organic” followed by up to three specific organic ingredients.

Does natural mean organic?

No. Natural and organic are not interchangeable. Natural means that a product does not contain artificial ingredients, such as preservatives or artificial coloring. Only food labeled "organic" has been certified as meeting USDA organic standards.

Are organic foods healthier for me compared to non-organic products?

There is no significant evidence to suggest that organic foods have a higher nutrient content compared to their non-organic counterparts. However, many people choose to purchase organic products to reduce their exposure to chemical pesticides or growth hormones. Organic produce is often more expensive due to the cost involved in farming organically. Fruits and vegetables that you may want to consider buying organic include peaches, apples, celery, spinach, lettuce, grapes, potatoes, and any other type of produce that the edible portion may have exposure to pesticides. Produce that you can buy non-organic includes watermelon, avocados, bananas, sweet corn, eggplants, and others, as these fruits and vegetables have thick and inedible skins that protect the edible portion from pesticide exposure.

It’s important to keep in mind that the process and cost to become a USDA-certified organic farmer can be overwhelming for small vendors that sell at your local farmers market. You may want to consider talking with your local vendors to see what kind of farming practices they do; many times small family farms already do many organic farming practices but do not actually seek certification with the USDA due to the cost and process involved. For more information regarding organic produce, the Environmental Working Group has a helpful shopper’s guide to pesticides in produce available free of charge.