What Do Organic Labels Actually Mean?

So many packaged foods and beverage carry organic labels these days. But do people really know what the term means in this context? Or do they just assume that they do?

In 2014, Consumer Reports found that most shoppers have some idea of what the organic labels on their food stand for, but generally lack a nuanced understanding. The study of 1,016 U.S. adults concluded that 81 percent believe the label means products are pesticide-free, while 61 percent said it signals they are antibiotic-free.

"There are four labeling categories for organic products."

There is some truth to these answers: According to a USDA blog post, organic produce must be grown on land that is has been free of most synthetic fertilizers and pesticides for at least three years before the harvest. Organic meat must indeed be free of antibiotics, and the animals must be fed organic feed.

But what many shoppers may not realize is that there are four labeling categories for organic products, and only one of them, "100 Percent Organic," abides by all of the aformentioned rules.

Other products may simply be marked as "organic," which means that all ingredients must be organic with the exception of certain items on the National List of Allowed and Prohibited Substances. The other two categories are "made with organic ingredients" – which must contain at least 70 percent – and "specific organic ingredients," which may include notations on ingredient lists. 

The Consumer Reports survey found that 84 percent of Americans are buying organic food each month, so clearly they are paying attention to these labels. Producers should be sure to make them clear so shoppers understand what is it that they are buying.

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