So What Does “Organic” Mean, Anyway?

nick musica
Published Nov 06, 2020. Read time: 4 mins

You know we here at FruitStand are all about all things locally-sourced and organically grown – but while keeping it local makes sense on the surface, there’s a lot of mystery behind the word “organic.”

We can all agree that organic food is a good thing – but what does it mean when food is organic? And how can you ensure your organic food is everything it’s claiming to be?.

The regulation landscape is a bit complicated, to say the least, but don’t worry: There are a few surefire ways to read the (all-natural) tea leaves.

Different Organic Designations

First thing’s first: Every industry has its own insider lingo, and the world of organic food is no different.

Most of the official terms come straight from the United States Department of Agriculture, the state agency tasked with regulating organic produce and other organic foods and farming practices.

And like with most bureaucratic efforts, even the most straightforward-sounding words can have a laundry list of legal qualifications behind them. So the next time you’re scanning your food labels, keep an eye out for some of these distinctions:

“Natural” Vs. “Organic”

All-natural. Organic. They might seem like happy synonyms, but when it comes to food labels, these words couldn’t be more different.

While use of “organic” is very specifically defined and seriously monitored by the USDA (more on that later), “all-natural” plays a little more fast and loose.

Technically, a “natural” food, according to the USDA, must not contain any artificial ingredients or preservatives, and the ingredients it does contain must be minimally processed.

Still, there are few guidelines to define what “minimally processed” means – and foods labeled either “natural” or “all-natural” can still contain antibiotics, growth hormones and other chemicals.

The USDA also keeps a slacker watch on “natural” labels, with farms able to simply supply an application for the designation, without any further follow-up or certification from the government agency.  

So how natural is your all-natural food? Like most things in this world, it all depends on your perspective.

Made With Organic Ingredients

A bit of a legal middle ground, this designation is most likely more natural than anything “all-natural.”

Foods labeled “Made With Organic Ingredients” must include at least 70 percent organic ingredients – which, themselves, must meet USDA benchmarks for the designation.

Still, the USDA is a bit fussy when it comes to using their officially certified seal, so these products are not allowed to prominently show it on their labels. Instead, “Made With Organic Ingredients” foods must identify which of their ingredients are, indeed, the organic ones.

USDA Certification

The best way to sort out what’s really organic is to look for the official seal.

In all but a rare few exceptions, any food claiming to be organic or USDA-certified organic must uphold the rigorous requirements of the governing body, along with undergoing an initial application process and a number of subsequent inspections by the Agriculture Department.

The products must be made of at least 95 percent certified organic ingredients, while the remaining 5 percent must come from an additional list of approved products designated by the USDA.

But what, exactly, does it take for a food to be certified? Well, we’re glad you asked.

So What Is Organic Food?

Like the terms above, “organic” or “certified organic” are little more than labels – but they carry a heavy legal weight behind them.

Anything with the USDA-approved seal must come from a farm that vigorously documents their processes and undergoes an inspection by the state agency every year.

And it’s not just fruits and vegetables that the Agriculture Department is concerned with: The label covers everything from meat to milk, and takes in every part of the process, from seeds and soil to sewage systems.

It’s one way to help assure that your organic food is healthy food – but there are a number of other fruit-specific stipulations spelled out by the USDA.

Organic Fruits & Vegetables

The government has three major considerations for certified organic fruits. Specifically, any fruit or vegetable wearing a certified organic label must NOT:

Be made with GMOs – or, genetically modified material, most typically contained in specialized seeds.

Be made with sewage-sludge, a noxious mixture of exactly what it sounds like that commonly shows up in commercial fertilizers.

Have undergone ionizing radiation – also called irradiation – which zaps food with a small amount of gamma rays, x-rays or electron beams to eliminate any insidious microbes.

Sometimes referred to as the “big three,” these practices are outright banned in an attempt to minimize food contamination and enhance the quality of the food in question – making sure that the healthy food people expect to be found under the label is the healthy food they get.

In addition, farmers are forbidden from using pesticides and synthetic fertilizers on anything labeled organic, and the soil crops are grown in must be free of the artificial chemicals for at least three years before harvest is collected in order to count toward the designation.

And even the way products are processed is scrutinized by the USDA. Organic produce must be free of any artificially-added preservatives, colors or flavors – with very few exceptions that include otherwise healthy food additives like enzymes in yogurt, pectin in fruit jams and baking soda in baked goods.

So the next time someone asks you what’s in a word, you can tell them, that when it comes to certified organic food, every syllable counts.


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