What Certified Organic Means and Why It Matters

Last Update: October 20, 2022

There’s a battle happening in your weekly grocery cart: organic vs. conventional. We’ve all been confronted with the choice between buying produce with a slightly higher price that seems like the healthier choice, or saving money with a mass-produced alternative.

But what really is the difference? The average consumer knows that organic products will likely be more expensive, but few of us actually understand what makes something organic.

Understanding where your food comes from and what makes it nutritious is a huge part of being a smart shopper. If you don’t know what you’re buying, how will you know if you’re getting a good deal?

Let’s dive right into the problem, then: What does certified organic really mean?

The United States Department of Agriculture certifies organic products with an USDA Organic label only if they meet specific criteria.

For meat and produce, the certification is relatively simple. Organic produce has to be grown in soil free of prohibited chemicals like synthetic pesticides and fertilizers. The soil must be considered “clean” for at least three years before produce grown in it can be considered organic.

For meat to be certified organic, the animals must be raised in a way that mirrors their natural behavior. For instance, a cow would have to be allowed to roam a pasture and eat grass as it pleased — not be fed synthetic silage in a crowded barn with thousands of other cows. Farmers also can’t feed organic animals any synthetic feed or forage and can’t treat their animals with antibiotics or hormones. Meat must also be handled in an organic way — no irradiation, sewage sludge, or other conventional practices may be used.

Foods with multiple ingredients have a more complicated set of criteria to meet. Not only do certified organic packaged foods need to be made from organic ingredients, but they also can’t contain any artificial preservatives, colors or flavors. There are a few exceptions to this rule: Some “non-agricultural” ingredients like enzymes in yogurt or baking soda in baked goods are acceptable even if they’re not organic.

Sometimes, products will say organic or “made with organic ingredients” but won’t have the official USDA seal. These products include more than 70 percent organic ingredients, but could be made with some conventionally grown ingredients.

No organic foods can be grown with genetically modified organisms.

Whether you’re dedicated to organic shopping, or have just started thinking seriously about your food, the most important thing is being informed. Pay attention to labels, consider the alternatives, and make the choice that keeps your family healthy.

Photo credit: Kate Mulling


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