What Does Organic Mean, Anyway?

Do you know what buying organic *actually* means?

Let’s say you’re at the grocery store: You stop and stare at a product with a green label that says “organic.” Sure, you’ve heard of the term, but you might still have questions about what exactly it means. Is it healthier? Better for the planet? Just a marketing scheme? With all of the tricky ways food labels can mislead you, taking the time to understand the slick green-and-white seal can seem overwhelming. Luckily we’ve gathered up some easy answers:

About the USDA Organic Seal

When a product is labeled as organic at the store, it’s making you a few promises. Here’s the main one: All ingredients have met the strict, national standards set by the U.S. Department of Agriculture. When you see the USDA Organic seal you can expect the following:

  • Chemical-free: No toxic/synthetic fertilizers, herbicides or pesticides are used at least three years prior to harvest. GMOs, synthetic growth hormones are banned, too.
  • Natural flavoring: Food is free of artificial preservatives, flavors and colors.
  • Organic feed: Livestock and poultry are fed 100% organic meals. This includes dairy-producing animals, too.
  • Antibiotic-free: If an animal falls sick, it’s treated and removed from production.
  • Access to the great outdoors: Organic standards see that animals have access to the outdoors year-round. However, the space animals have access to may vary.
  • Vetted by experts: Trained USDA officials keep producers in check and standards up to date on a regular basis.

The Language of Labels

Not all labels are created equally, be sure to look out for these slight discrepancies on the seal when shopping:

  • 100% Organic: Made with 100% organic ingredients.
  • Organic: Made with at least 95% organic ingredients.
  • Made with Organic Ingredients: Made with a minimum of 70% organic ingredients with strict restrictions on the remaining 30% including non-GMOs.

So What Does This Mean for Me?

While the USDA Organic Certification isn’t a silver bullet that makes all foods intrinsically better, it does set producers and growers in a positive direction. Here’s how the organic seal impacts you:

  • Fresher, but not for long: Since organic food is typically free from preservatives—it doesn’t last long. Because it can’t be transported for as long or as far, you may see some organic food that looks fresher than it’s non-organic counterpart at the store.
  • A friend to the Earth: According to the USDA, organic practices can improve water quality, increase biodiversity and contribute to soil health. Purchasing goods from farmers helps support these efforts.
  • Heftier price tag: Because organic food requires special treatment, it typically costs more. Follow Grandma’s lead and know these money-saving shopping tips before you head to the store.

What Next?

While you may not be able to buy all-organic ingredients all of the time, there are a few tips you can know before you shop to make happier, healthier decisions about your food:

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Carolyn Lewis
Carolyn Lewis is a young writer & digital media professional who grew up in Milwaukee. She loves to read graphic novels, write poetry about nature and cook Thai food while listening to podcasts. She has always been a storyteller and animal lover, thus, she has a hamster named Hamlet.