Food Sick

Food Sick: What Does the “Organic” Label Really Mean?

6 minutes read

It’s commonly thought that the “organic” label on produce and products means that a food is healthier than its non-organic counterpart. In fact, a recent survey found that more than 55% of American adults believe that organic fruits and vegetables are better for your health than conventionally grown produce [1]. But what does the organic label really mean, how do farmers and brands obtain organic certification, and are organic products actually healthier?

What does “organic” mean?

Organic” is a labeling term that ensures a food item was produced according to farming and processing standards set by the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA), which enacted these standards in 2002 [2, 3].

The USDA’s organic guidelines cover a range of areas, including soil quality, use of pesticides and herbicides, animal welfare, and GMOs. The intention behind these guidelines is to emphasize the importance of conserving the environment by decreasing greenhouse gas emissions, preventing soil erosion, and minimizing water pollution.

For the most part, farmers can support their goals — and receive a USDA-certified stamp of approval — if they only use natural substances (and no synthetic substances) during growing and processing, with a few exceptions [3].

But it’s not as black-and-white as “conventional” vs. “organic.” There are actually four different types of organic labeling that capture the spectrum of what claims producers can make about their foods or products.

The 4 different types of organic labeling

The 4 distinct labeling categories for organic products are [4]:

100 percent organic:

  • Contains 100% certified organic ingredients
  • Label includes the certifying agent name
  • May feature the USDA organic seal and/or the 100 percent organic claim


  • Less than 5% of the combined total ingredients may contain non-organic content, and must come from the National List of Allowed and Prohibited Substances [5]
  • Label includes the certifying agent name 
  • May include the USDA organic seal and/or the organic claim (but not 100 percent organic claim)

"Made with" organic ingredients:

  • At least 70% of the product contains certified organic ingredients 
  • All non-agricultural products allowed on the National List
  • No organic seal or organic claim — can only state that the product is “made with organic [up to three ingredients]”

Specific organic ingredients:

  • Multi-ingredient products with less than 70% certified organic content 
  • Cannot display the USDA organic seal or use the word “organic” on the front of packaging (can only use the term in the ingredients list to describe the specific ingredients that are organic) 

It’s important to note that the term “natural” isn’t regulated by the USDA and can be used on packaging without meeting any set standards, but “organic” can only be used on certified organic produce and products. 

Learning not only about what these labels mean, but also about how they are regulated and obtained can empower you to make informed and intentional decisions on your next trip to the grocery store.

What makes a product organic?

The rule for organic agriculture is that natural substances are allowed while synthetic substances are prohibited. More specifically, organic products must be:

  • Inspected by a USDA National Organic Program (NOP) agent
  • Grown without excluded or prohibited methods (e.g., genetic engineering, ionizing radiation, or sewage sludge)
  • Grown using approved substances

The National Organic Standards Board (NOSB) advises the NOP on which substances should be allowed or prohibited [6]. 

Excluded or prohibited methods:

  • Synthetic chemicals 
  • Genetically modified organisms (i.e., GMOs), which include processes like cell fusion, microencapsulation, macroencapsulation, and recombinant DNA technology (often used to increase crops’ resistance to insects and diseases)
  • Growth hormone, antibiotics, or non-humane welfare practices (however, animals do need to receive routine vaccines to ensure they’re free from preventable disease)
  • Ionizing radiation (e.g., X-rays or gamma rays) or sewage sludge (which is often used as a fertilizer) 

Allowed substances/methods:

  • Environmentally-friendly agricultural practices that improve soil fertility, minimize soil degradation and erosion, and decrease pollution 
  • Non-toxic additives or agents, often used as pesticides (e.g., baking soda, pheromones, neem oil, and copper sulfate) 
  • Crop rotation for pest management and to increase disease resistance and farm biodiversity [7]
  • Record-keeping of any and all natural pesticide use for at least 3 years [8] 

The challenges of being certified organic

Although seeing the organic seal on products may be appealing to consumers, the extensive regulations make it very difficult for farmers to obtain the certification, even if they unofficially follow organic farming practices. In addition to meeting the requirements above, farmers need to participate in annual inspections that cover everything from soil conditions and crop health to seed sources, contamination prevention strategies, pest management, and more [9].

Additionally, each farm needs to go through an intensive certification process that involves the approval from both a USDA-certifying agent and an on-site inspector as well as a costly application process [10]. The typical duration of this process is at least three years — which also means that the same USDA requirements must be upheld during this time including the disuse of any prohibited substances on the land for the past three years.

In short, it’s not always feasible or financially possible for farms, especially small ones, to be certified. However, farmers can still follow organic best practices without the certification, so if you have access to a farmers market, talking to your local producers there can help you understand their farming practices.

Instead of looking for the “organic” label, consider talking directly to producers are your local farmers market about their farming practices and supporting them.

Is organic produce healthier than non-organic produce?

Although the agricultural practices of organic farming are environmentally friendly, eating organic is not required for better health. The term “organic” is a perfect example of the health halo effect, a marketing tactic used to create the perception that a food is healthy or superior, even when evidence to support the claim is lacking. 

In fact, a study found that consumers perceived organically produced whole foods as healthier, tastier, and less caloric than conventionally produced foods [11]. Regardless of the nutritional content, having the organic label on a food product was the preferred option. 

But is this actually the case? Researchers have actually evaluated the nutritive content of organic vs. non-organic foods. One study looked at the impact of organic foods on human health and found that although there was some evidence that organic food consumption may reduce the risk of allergic disease and of overweight and obesity, the specific nutrient differences between organic and conventional foods were extremely minimal [12]. 

According to the study, organic fruits and vegetables may have slightly higher polyphenolic compounds (i.e., antioxidants found in plant-based foods), organic cereal crops may have slightly lower cadmium (a heavy metal), and organic dairy products and meats may have more omega-3 fatty acids compared to conventional products. But the important takeaway here is that the nutritional differences are negligible — and don’t not lead to superior health outcomes compared to conventional produce [12].

Furthermore, it’s tricky to draw a direct line between eating organic produce and experiencing less risk of chronic disease, as the study also notes that people who eat organic foods tend to have healthier lifestyles overall. 

Where current research paints a clearer picture is the importance of eating whole foods — even if they’re conventional — over ultra-processed foods, which studies reveal are associated with increased risk of Type 2 diabetes and obesity as well as disruptions to the gut-brain axis and eating rate.

In other words, while we may not be able to change every aspect of our lifestyles, nutrition is the most impactful lever you can pull for improving your metabolic health — and the key to impactful nutrition isn’t about organic vs. non-organic, but rather eating colorful vegetables and fruits, lean proteins, healthy fats, and complex carbohydrates, while avoiding ultra-processed foods high in refined sugar and artificial additives.

These processed foods can lead to glucose spikes that have short- and long-term metabolic, hormonal, and immune consequences that can lead, over time, to glucose intolerance, insulin resistance, and chronic disease. 

And while fresh, whole foods are ideal, we understand that with the U.S. food desert crisis, fresh produce isn’t always easily accessible or affordable for everyone. If you’re working with a tight budget or struggling to find quality produce in your area, frozen and canned foods are great cost-effective options — just double-check there isn’t any added sugar.


Organic farming is a great practice to support the environment, but the certification can be difficult for many farmers to obtain. Furthermore, organic doesn’t necessarily mean healthier or better in terms of nutritional value. So, rather than getting caught up in the label, make it a priority to eat a variety of fruits and vegetables and support local farmers markets when possible and available. 

  • Organic is a labeling term that indicates that the food or other agricultural product has been produced through approved processes for planting, growing, raising, and handling. The general rule for organic agriculture is to allow natural substances and prohibit synthetic substances. 
  • The certification process is lengthy and expensive, which inhibits many smaller farms to apply or obtain the USDA organic label. 
  • Research has shown that the health halo effect of the term “organic” is prevalent. However, research has also shown that the nutritional differences between organic and non-organic products are minimal. 
  • Prioritizing whole foods with a variety of fruits and vegetables over highly processed foods is the most impactful decision you can make for your diet and health outcomes.



Written by: Peyton Lessard, MS
Reviewed by: Emily Johnson, MSc RD

Table of Contents

  • What does “organic” mean?
  • What makes a product organic?
  • The challenges of being certified organic
  • Is organic produce healthier than non-organic produce?
  • Takeaways


Ready to join Veri?

Similar articles