Buying Organic Products

When you pick up a head of lettuce, a tray of tomatoes or a bag of apples labeled “organic” in your local grocery store’s produce aisle, do you know what you're buying? If it says natural on the label, does that mean the same thing?

The answer is not necessarily. Just because the label says the product is natural doesn't mean it's organic.

Natural vs. Organic

Food products labeled as "natural" are regulated by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA). This term refers to foods that have been minimally processed or are free from synthetic ingredients.

In contrast, organic products are regulated by the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA). The USDA's National Organic Program (NOP) requires products labeled organic to be produced without using conventional pesticides, fertilizers made with synthetic ingredients or bioengineering. For example, organic meat, poultry, eggs and dairy products must come from animals that are not given antibiotics or growth hormones and are fed organic feed, while organic crops must be grown in soil that is free from prohibited chemicals for at least three years. Organic growers must keep detailed written production and sales records to verify their organic production claims and undergo yearly onsite inspections by a USDA-approved certifier. Processed organic products must be produced in a certified facility, and all organic ingredients and approved non-organic ingredients must maintain their integrity through all stages of handling and distribution. This is also true for any imported organic products.

Labeling Requirements

Products labeled as 100 percent organic will show an ingredients list (if not a single ingredient item); the name and address of the handler (bottler, distributor, importer, manufacturer, packer, processor, etc.) of the finished product; and the name and/or seal of the organic certifier, such as: "Certified organic by Quality Assurance International (QAI)." The USDA organic seal may also be displayed.

To be labeled "organic," the product must contain at least 95 percent organic ingredients. The label must display an ingredients list that identifies the organic ingredients as well as the non-organic ingredients in the product, and the name of the organic certifier. The USDA organic seal may also be displayed.

Products labeled "made with organic (specified ingredients or food groups)" must contain at least 70 percent organic ingredients. The label must contain an ingredients list that identifies the organic ingredients as well as the non-organic ingredients in the product, and the name of the organic certifier. The USDA organic seal may not be displayed.

If a product contains less than 70 percent organic materials, the product can identify which ingredients are organic on the ingredients panel [e.g. salt, corn (organic) and vegetable oil], but cannot make any mention of organic on the principle display panel. These products cannot display any certifier seals or the USDA organic seal.

Consumer Resources Mailing List

Receive NSF consumer updates.

View Mailing List Archives

close