How to Decode an Organic Food Label

More Americans are turning to organic foods out of a desire to minimize exposure to chemicals in food as well as a concern for the environment. A national definition of the term “organic” was established in 2002 by the federal government and encompasses a set of standards that governs the production, labeling and marketing of organic foods.

To be called organic, a food must be produced without bioengineering, herbicides, irradiation, pesticides, synthetic fertilizers or sewage sludge. Organic livestock must be raised on 100 percent organic feed, and antibiotics and growth hormones are prohibited. To find out if a food is organic, check the label for the “USDA Certified Organic” seal.

While all organic foods carry this basic seal of approval from the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), other words on the label are used to indicate the quantity of organic ingredients the food contains:

100 percent organic means the food contains only organically produced raw or processed ingredients, with the exception of water and salt.

Organic indicates that at least 95 percent of the ingredients are organically produced. Also, the product can’t contain added sulfites.

Made with organic ingredients denotes that at least 70 percent of the ingredients in the product are organic. It cannot contain added sulfites, although wine may contain sulfur dioxide.

Some organic ingredients means that the food may contain less than 70 percent organic ingredients (aside from water and salt).

There is no scientific evidence that organic foods are safer, higher quality or more nutritious than conventional foods. Although many people perceive organic foods as healthier than conventional foods, a USDA Certified Organic seal does not signify freshness, enhanced taste or superior quality or nutritional content.

In addition, organic does not guarantee that a food is pesticide-free: Up to 5 percent pesticide residues are permitted in organic foods. However, organic foods typically contain pesticide residues only one-third as often as conventionally grown foods. Still, many proponents stress that a commitment to organic production enhances environmental quality.