How are organic foods identified?

Organic foods can be identified through 4 different types of label information.

Least common in the marketplace, but most reliable, is the claim “100% organic” on the front of any certified organic food. This claim requires all ingredients in the food (without except) to be produced in compliance with organic regulations.

Much more common in the marketplace is the presence of the USDA organic logo on the front of a certified organic food. This USDA logo often appears in green as pictured below:

Certified organic foods bearing the USDA logo must contain at least 95% (by weight or fluid volume, excluding water and salt) approved ingredients. Up to 5% of the food may contain prohibited ingredients, if those ingredients are not available in organic form. For example, an ingredient containing a synthetic pesticide residue may be included in a certified organic food bearing the USDA logo, as long as that ingredient could not be obtained by the manufacturer in organic form and as long as the weight of the ingredient did not exceed 5% of the total weight of the product (by weight or fluid volume, excluding water and salt). However, there is one important caveat to this “5%” rule for certified organic foods bearing the USDA logo: even in the 5% “non-organic” portion of the food, ingredients are not allowed to be genetically engineered, fertilized with sewage sludge, or irradiated.

A third way to identify certified organic foods is through “Made With” labeling claims on the front of the packaging. For example, a certified organic pasta sauce may say “Made with Organic Tomatoes” on the front of the packaging. In the case of “Made With” claims, at least 70% of all ingredients (by weight or fluid volume, excluding water and salt) must be in compliance with all organic regulations. As such, 30% of ingredients may contain prohibited ingredients, provided that those ingredients are not available in organic form. Just like use of the organic logo, however, there is one important caveat to this “30%” rule for certified organic foods showing “Made With” claims: even in the 30% “non-organic” portion of the food, ingredients are not allowed to be genetically engineered, fertilized with sewage sludge, or irradiated.

A final way to identify certified organic foods is through individual ingredient entries on the Ingredients List on the side or back of the packaging. If a food contains less than 70% of its ingredients (by weight or fluid volume, excluding water and salt) as organic, no labeling claims are permitted on the front of the packaging. However, individual organic ingredients that comply with USDA regulations may be listed on the side or back of the packaging in the product’s Ingredients List.

In summary, your best bet for selecting certified organic foods is to choose foods that state “100% Organic” on the front of the packaging. If you are purchasing whole fruits and vegetables in the produce section of the grocery and the foods are labeled as organic, that’s just as good! These whole fruits and vegetables are simply themselves and have no additional ingredients from a labeling standpoint. It is worth pointing out, however, that certain waxes are permitted in the handling of certified organic fruits and vegetables including shellac (from the lac beetle) and carnauba wax (from carnauba palm). It’s also worth pointing out that frozen or canned fruits and vegetables that have been certified as organic may contain added ingredients. If you are using the USDA’s organic logo to identify these foods as organic, you will need to check the Ingredient List on the packaging to determine if added ingredients are present, and if any of these added ingredients are non-organic and simply fall into the “5%” non-organic category that logo-bearing foods are allowed to have under USDA regulations

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