Conscientious Cook: Understanding Organic Labeling

Is there really a difference between a product that's labeled "organic" verses "100% organic"? Just like the labeling on a carton of eggs, we think the labeling on organic products can get downright confusing. Get the skinny on how the USDA defines these terms after the jump...

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According to the rules and regulations for organic labeling set by the USDA and National Organic Program (NOP), there are four distinct levels of "organic":

1. "100% Organic" - For a product to be considered 100% organic, it must contain all organic ingredients and have used only organic processing aids. Companies are allowed to market these products as 100% organic and can also use the USDA seal on their packaging (see left).

2. "Organic" - These products must be made of at least 95% organic materials and the remaining ingredients must come from an approved list of non-organic ingredients. These products can be marketed as organic (but not 100% organic) and they can also display the USDA seal on their packaging.

3. "Made with Organic Ingredients" - Products with labeling are made of at least 70% organic ingredients. These product must be made following USDA-approved methods, and they are allowed to name up to three organic ingredients on the front of the packaging (as in "made with organic corn" in the photo above). However, these products are not allowed to display the USDA seal.

4. Less than 70% Organic - This distinction is for foods that contain organic ingredients, but which comprise less than 70% of the final product. These foods cannot use the word "organic" anywhere on the front of the packaging, but they may identify which ingredients are organic in the information panel. These products cannot use the USDA seal on their packaging.

For any of these products, the name of the third-party certifying agent must be displayed. The penalty for improper labeling is $11,000.

In short, although organic labeling can sometimes take on the look of strategic marketing, there are rules and regulations behind the wording. And if you get lost in the labeling, just look for the USDA seal!

• To find out more about how the USDA defines "organic" and other policies from this department, check out the National Organic Program website.

Related: Price Check: Are You Buying Less Organic Food?

(Image: Flickr member micamonkey licensed under Creative Commons and the US Department of Agriculture)

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