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A Quick Guide to Understanding Organic Food Labeling

Organic food must be manufactured according to strick USDA guidelines to maintain organic status. Learn what to look for in organic food labeling.

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People choose organic foods for a variety of reasons, ranging from concerns about health to taste to environmental issues. Some people eat all organic, while others go organic only for certain produce that have had some outbreaks in previous years. Whatever the reason, a quick guide to understanding organic food labeling can make navigating the world of organic foods easier and more successful.

Thanks to the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) regulations, the word "organic" is specific, unlike words like "natural." An item cannot be advertised as organic unless it consists of all or almost all organic ingredients. In addition, practices for manufacturing or growing an organic product are precisely defined by the USDA. Below is a quick guide to understanding organic food labeling. Once you know what to look for, organic food labeling is straightforward and easy to navigate.

Defining “Organic”

Organic food is grown without the use of synthetically derived chemicals for crops and livestock, among other restrictions. At a minimum, organic farmers must follow the following guidelines. Some farmers may also use sustainable practices which go above and beyond the regulations listed below.
  • No pesticides
  • No herbicides
  • No genetically modified organisms
  • For livestock, no antibiotics, growth hormones, or genetically modified feed
  • For eggs, hens must be raised cage-free and free range

USDA Labeling

Organic farms are inspected regularly and must maintain organic status for 3 years to be labeled "organic." In fact, the process for being labeled as organic is so strict that some small farmers who meet the requirements choose not to seek certification due to the costs associated with the process -- something to keep in mind at the farmer's market.

Several classifications of organic exist:

  • Multi-ingredient foods that are at least 70% organic can be labeled "Made with Organic Ingredients"
  • Multi-ingredient foods must be at least 95%-99% organic by weight to gain the label "Organic"
  • Multi-ingredient foods made with 100% organic ingredients are labeled "100% Organic"
  • Single ingredient foods such as produce, meat, or milk with the label "Organic" are made of 100% organic foods

If you want to avoid all non-organic foods, stick to single-ingredient foods and processed foods labeled "100% Organic."

For processed, pre-packaged foods, look for a label that says "USDA," followed by either "Organic," "100% Organic," or "Made with Organic Ingredients." This will be prominently displayed on the front of the packaging as well as on the information label. Packaged meat also displays the USDA seal. In addition, organic foods usually prominently advertise that they are organic on the label -- only foods that are certified organic can market themselves in that way.

Organic produce may be marked in two ways -- a sticker indicating USDA certification or on a sign prominently displayed above the produce that says “organic. “

Bottom Line

If you want to fill your diet with natural foods, stick to buying foods with descriptions that have USDA-regulated meanings such as "Organic." Stay away from vague labels like "Natural," which has no formal definition. When going to the grocery store, be armed with a quick guide to understanding organic food labeling to help you reach your personal dietary goals.

About the author:
Chris Bekermeier is Vice President, Sales & Marketing of PacMoore in Hammond, IN. PacMoore is a contract manufacturer focused on processing dry ingredients for the food & pharmaceutical industries. Capabilities include blending, spray drying, re-packaging, sifting, & food packaging.

Edited by Carolyn Allen
| organic | food | manufacturing |

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