Organic Food – What Does the USDA Organic Label Mean?

USDA Organic SealIf a banana or a box of cereal displays the USDA Organic seal, that means it’s 100% organic, “Right?” Well, not necessarily.

As long as the banana is a whole unprocessed piece of fruit it is 100% organic. The cereal is a multi-ingredient processed food that may or may not have been made entirely with 100% organic ingredients. And yet, they both carry the USDA Organic seal. Confused? I was.

In this post, we’ll learn how the USDA categorizes organic food for marketing purposes via the National Organic Program (NOP) and attempt to answer the question, “What does the USDA Organic label mean?”

Two previous posts covered NOP basics that readers may find useful for understanding terms in this post. Organic Food – USDA National Organic Program gives an overview of the NOP and describes the role of certifying agents. Organic Food – USDA Rules and Regulations explains organic production and handling requirements and the National List of Allowed and Prohibited Substances.

USDA Organic Categories and Labeling Rules

The USDA regulates how organically produced and handled raw and processed agricultural products (food, non-food crops, and livestock feed) is categorized and labeled. We’ll focus on food for people.

Organic food falls into 1 of 3 categories: 100% organic, organic, or made with organic (specified ingredients or food groups).

Organic Fruits, Vegetables, and Packaged Food from Author's Kitchen

Use of the USDA Organic seal is voluntary, however there are specific rules for which products may bear the seal and what may be said on labels and packaging.

The weight or fluid volume (excluding water and salt) of organic ingredients is used to calculate the percentage of organic ingredients in a given product which determines its category.

I pulled some examples of organic raw and processed foods from my pantry, fridge, and kitchen countertop to illustrate various organic labeling methods.

100% Organic

All ingredients must be 100% organic. This is easier for say an apple than a jar of peanut butter. The name of the product may be modified with the words 100% organic. The USDA Organic seal and name and seal of the certifying agent may be used on the product or package.

Fresh Produce

The 100% organic carrots, red cabbage, spinach, broccoli, and radishes in the photo are part of our CSA (Community Supported Agriculture) share from Los Osos Valley Organic Farm, a local certified organic farm. The twist ties perform two functions; keeping like items together and identifying the certifying agent, CCOF (Certified California Organic Farmers).

Organic Broccoli, Carrots, and Red Cabbage with CCOF Twist Ties

Honey

On the Natural Directions 100% Organic Honey bottle, the USDA Organic seal is prominently displayed on the front and the words 100% organic are used to modify the name of the product. For good measure, the word organic appears in a red banner. The back label lists the ingredients as organic honey and identifies the certifying agent, PCO (Pennsylvania Certified Organic).

Natural Directions 100% Organic Honey with USDA Organic Seal

Organic

Products labeled organic must contain not less than 95% organic ingredients. The remaining ingredients may be non-organically produced if not available in organic form and must still comply with the National List of Allowed and Prohibited Substances. The name of the product may be modified with the word organic and organic may be used to preface organic ingredients. The USDA Organic seal and name and seal of the certifying agent may be used on the product or package.

Bread

The bag containing Dave’s Killer Bread displays the USDA seal and the name and seal of the certifying agent, Quality Assurance International. The ingredients are prefaced with the word organic, e.g. organic whole wheat, organic sunflower seeds, organic flaxseeds, etc. Although it’s not strictly necessary because genetically modified organisms are prohibited in organic food, the front of the bag sports the words “GMO free”.

Dave's Killer Power Seed Bread with USDA Organic Seal

Made with Organic

The made with organic designation is for products that contain at least 70% organic ingredients. The other ingredients may not be produced using excluded methods, sewage sludge, or ionizing radiation. The organic ingredients may be prefaced with the word organic, for instance organic wheat. The USDA seal may not be used; however the name and seal of the certifying agent may be used on product packaging.

Energy Bar

The Crunchy Peanut Butter Clif Bar package says, “Made with Organic Oats & Peanut Butter”, in the upper right hand corner and lists some organic ingredients on the back, like organic rolled oats and organic peanuts. Per USDA regulations, the USDA Organic seal is not used on the package but it does say, “Certified Organic by QAI” on the back.

Clif Bar Made with Organic Ingredients and Bunch of Organic Bananas with USDA Seal

Multi-Ingredient

Technically there is a fourth category; products containing less than 70% organic ingredients. In this case, NOP production and handling requirements only apply to the organic ingredients. No organic seals or statements may be made on the packaging. Organic ingredients may be prefaced with the word organic, e.g. organic cane syrup.

Organic Food Label Challenge

You are now armed with the necessary information to be a savvy organic food shopper.

Try this the next time you are at the grocery market. Look for 5 whole or processed foods that exhibit the USDA Organic seal or the word organic. Read the labels and ingredients lists (for processed foods), and identify which of the categories each item belongs in. Then choose one of the items you examined, buy it and try it.

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