What Do Organic Food Labels Really Mean?

Trying to decipher your average food ingredient label is hard enough, but finding your way around the labyrinth of organic food labels is unexpectedly just as challenging. There are many different symbols and abbreviations, as well as language manipulation, that can sound like one thing and be something completely different. Recognizing these labels once you have become familiar with them empowers your consumerism, giving you a little more say as to where your money ends up.


The term ‘organic’ refers to the method in which farmers grow, process and impact the environment with their harvest. The practice includes:

  • manure and compost as fertilizer instead of chemicals
  • advantageous birds and/or insects, interrupted mating techniques or humane traps to reduce pests
  • crop rotation, soil turning and mulch to reduce weeds preventing the use of herbicides
  • feed animals organically, give them outdoor access, reduce disease by rotating grazing, maintain a clean stable and a balanced diet


  • 100% Organic: all ingredients are 100% organic – this means that an ingredient list, the name and address of the packager and the name and seal of the organic certifier all must be displayed. The USDA Organic label is allowable.
  • USDA Organic: This label has USDA in green writing and ORGANIC in white writing surrounded by a brown circle. It can be found on produce or packaged items such as meat, cheese and eggs. To be allowed to display this label on packaging the contents must adhere to the following restrictions: 95% to 99% of ingredients are organic by weight and the remaining ingredients, which would most likely not be available organically, have been approved by the National Organic Program (NOP). All ingredients, organic and non-organic must be listed as well as the name of the organic certifier.
  • Made with Organic: 70% of ingredients must be organic. All ingredients, organic and non-organic must be listed as well as the name of the organic certifier.

Quality Assurance International (QAI)

QAI is a U.S. run international organic certification program. The label is a circle with Quality Assurance International running around it with a vertical oval in the middle, a vertical line running through the center of the oval and three horizontal lines running across it. Look for this label when looking for organic food overseas or purchasing imported foods in the U.S. The QAI works with the NOP to adhere to all strict standards of organic production.


Foods cannot be labeled organic if genetically modified organisms (GMO) are used. GMO’s are plants or animals that have had their DNA altered to produce larger, more colorful, superfoods that to date have not had the proper testing to determine their safety. Because the FDA does not require GMO enhanced foods to be labeled, Non-GMO labeleing has been developed to inform the consumer that the food is organic friendly.

Organic Foods to Buy

Some foods are more susceptible to pesticide, antibiotic and hormone residue than others. Below are some foods to consideer purchasing organic:

  • meat – beef and poultry
  • eggs
  • peaches and nectarines
  • apples
  • celery
  • cherries
  • bell peppers
  • strawberries
  • pears
  • lettuce and spinach
  • potatoes
  • imported grapes
  • baby food and juices
  • coffee

Foods Okay as Non-Organic

These foods are usually a safe choice as non-organic:

  • processed foods such as chips, pasta, cereal, bread, oil, canned dried fruits, canned vegetables
  • banana
  • blueberries
  • mango
  • papaya
  • kiwi
  • watermelon
  • onions
  • sweet corn
  • avocado
  • sweet peas
  • broccoli
  • asparagus
  • eggplant

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