Organically grown produce commands a prominent spot and premium price at the market. But, do you really know what the word "organic" means? Government regulations define the term and help consumers know what they are getting when they select organic products.

What Does Organic Mean?

People have different points of view about what organic means. Organic may mean that the food is more nutritious. Others people believe it means "cleaner" and "safer." Still others say that the key benefit is the effect on the environment.

Some people recognize organic products as having been grown or made using principles and practices that are less likely to pollute or damage air, soil, and water. And although organic farming practices may include benefits that go beyond the plants and animals grown and harvested using these practices, they can—and do—vary. Complicating the situation even further is the fact that most states have their own laws regulating organic practices and products.

How Is "Organic" Defined?

The US Department of Agriculture (USDA) created a rule that describes the methods, practices, and substances that farmers and producers can use when they grow and handle organic crops and processed items. The rule also lists prohibited substances and practices, including controversial ones, such as genetically modified organisms (GMOs), sludge fertilizer, and irradiation.

Milk provides a good example of how comprehensive the standard is. Katherine DiMatteo, Executive Director of the Organic Trade Association (OTA), says that "to be labeled 'organic,' milk can only come from cows fed 100% organic grain. So the grain cannot come from genetically engineered seed, and it cannot have been fertilized with sludge. The cows may not be given antibiotics or growth hormones. The milk can be pasteurized or fortified with vitamins, but it cannot be irradiated or shipped in tankers that carry other milk or bottled in between runs of nonorganic milk."

Look for the Seal of Approval

If you are interested in buying organically-grown food, look for the USDA's seal. This seal tells you that authorities certify the product as organic. There are four categories of organic products on your grocer's shelves:

  • "100% Organic" (nothing in these products can be nonorganic)
  • "Organic" (95% or more of the ingredients must be organic)
  • "Made with organic ingredients" (70%-95% of ingredients are organic)
  • For products with less than 70% organic ingredients, the word organic may only appear on the ingredient information panel.

No matter what your reason is for buying organic food, by looking for the USDA's seal, you can gain more information about the product and make a well-informed decision about what you choose to eat.