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How To Decode Organic Labels

With the rising demand for health-conscious and eco-friendly products, organic labels have taken the spotlight. But what does “organic” really mean?

Understanding this label can be the difference between a smart buy and a costly mistake. This article will guide you through decoding the organic label, so you know exactly what you’re bringing home.

A top view of a variety of organic fruits and vegetables.

Decoding the organic label involves understanding the farming and processing criteria a product meets. Genuine organic products are free from synthetic fertilizers, pesticides, and GMOs, with varying levels of organic certification indicated on the label, such as “100% Organic” or “Made with Organic Ingredients”.

What Does “Organic” Mean?

“Organic” refers to the way agricultural products are grown and processed. It guarantees that the product was produced without the use of synthetic fertilizers, pesticides, genetically modified organisms (GMOs), and irradiation.

Organic farming promotes biodiversity, ecological balance, and soil fertility.

The Levels of Organic Certification

  1. 100% Organic: Made entirely from organic ingredients.
  2. Organic: At least 95% of its ingredients are organic.
  3. Made with Organic Ingredients: Contains a minimum of 70% organic ingredients.

Genuine Organic Products

When shopping, keep an eye out for these features:

Certified Organic Seals

If a product is truly organic, it should have a certified seal from an accredited organization, like the USDA Organic Seal in the U.S.

Ingredient List

Organic products typically have a straightforward ingredient list. If you find unfamiliar chemical names, chances are, it’s not genuinely organic.

Transparent Sourcing

Genuine organic brands often promote their farm sources and may even include stories about the farmers they work with.

Benefits of Going Organic

For Your Health

Organic foods often contain more beneficial nutrients and fewer harmful pesticides.

For The Environment

Organic farming practices are designed to conserve water, reduce pollution, and promote soil health.

Common Misconceptions

  1. “Natural” equals “Organic”: Just because a product is labeled “natural” doesn’t mean it’s organic.
  2. All Organic products are pesticide-free: Organic farms use natural pesticides, but they are less harmful than synthetic ones.
BiodynamicA holistic, ecological, and ethical approach to farming.
GMO-FreeThe product does not contain genetically modified organisms.
Grass-FedAnimals that ate grass instead of grains.
Free-RangeAnimals had some access to the outdoors.
Cage-FreeBirds were not raised in cages but might not see outdoors.

The Dirty Dozen

Certain foods tend to be more susceptible to pesticide residue or other contaminants and therefore are often recommended to be bought organic when possible.

This recommendation is commonly based on reports like the Environmental Working Group’s (EWG) annual “Dirty Dozen” list, which ranks produce with the highest pesticide residues.

Here are some of the most commonly recommended foods to buy organic:

  1. Strawberries: These are often at the top of the list due to the many pesticides they can contain.
  2. Spinach: It tends to have more pesticide residue by weight.
  3. Kale, collards, and mustard greens: Recent additions to the list due to increased detections of pesticide residues.
  4. Nectarines: Almost all samples of conventionally grown nectarines tested positive for at least two pesticides.
  5. Apples: Pesticide residue can linger on apple skin.
  6. Grapes: These can contain several different pesticide residues.
  7. Cherries: Like apples, cherries often contain multiple pesticide residues.
  8. Peaches: They often have multiple types of pesticide residues.
  9. Pears: Recent years have seen increased pesticide residue.
  10. Bell and hot peppers: These have been found to contain concerning amounts of pesticide residues.
  11. Celery: It has a high potential for pesticide residue.
  12. Tomatoes: They can often contain more pesticides than other produce.

For detailed guidelines on picking fresh produce, check out our comprehensive guide and find out how to know when they are ripe:

In addition to these fruits and vegetables, consumers might also consider prioritizing organic versions of the following:

  • Meat: To avoid antibiotics, growth hormones, and feed that may have been treated with pesticides.
  • Dairy: Especially milk, to avoid exposure to hormones and pesticides.
  • Coffee: Coffee beans are often grown in countries without strict pesticide regulations.
  • Eggs: Organic eggs often come from chickens that were given organic feed and were not treated with hormones or antibiotics.

While it’s beneficial to buy organic versions of these foods, it’s also essential to note that consuming fruits and vegetables, in general, is vital for health.

If organic versions are not accessible or affordable, it’s better to eat conventionally grown produce than to skip them altogether.

Organic Certification Process

The organic certification process is quite rigorous to ensure the integrity and consumer trust in organic products.

Firstly, a farm or business adopts organic practices and selects a USDA-accredited certifying agent.

After an initial review of the application and an agreement contract, the agent conducts an on-site inspection of the operation.

This inspection checks all aspects of the operation, from seed sources, soil conditions, crop health, weed, and pest management, to water systems, storage facilities, and record-keeping.

Post-inspection, the certifier reviews the inspector’s report and any additional information to make a certification decision.

If approved, the certificate is issued, and annual inspections are done to maintain the certification.

Frequently Asked Questions About Organic Labels

A “100% Organic” label means that the product is made entirely from organic ingredients, ensuring no synthetic additives or GMOs.

Yes, while “natural” might suggest fewer artificial ingredients, only “organic” ensures adherence to strict farming and processing standards.

Organic products can use natural pesticides. However, these are often less harmful than the synthetic pesticides used in conventional farming.


By understanding the nuances of the organic label, you can make informed decisions for your health and the environment. Remember, knowledge is power—especially when it comes to choosing the best for you and the planet.

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