What do the food labels such as “organic,” "natural," "free-range," and "non-GMO" really mean? Understanding this terminology is essential when you’re shopping for organic foods.
The most important point to remember is that "natural" does not equal organic. "Natural" on packaged food is an unregulated term that can be applied by anyone, whereas organic certification means that set production standards have been met. These production standards vary from country to country—in the U.S., for example, only the "USDA Organic" label indicates that a food is certified organic. Similar certification labels are also offered on organic products in other parts of the world, including the European Union, Canada, and Australia.
USDA Certified Organic Food Labels in the U.S.
When you’re shopping for organic foods in the U.S., look for the “USDA Organic” seal. Only foods that are 95 to 100 percent organic can use the USDA Organic label.
- 100% Organic – Foods that are completely organic or made with 100% organic ingredients may display the USDA seal.
- Organic – Foods that contain at least 95% organic ingredients may display the USDA seal.
- Made with organic ingredients – Foods that contain at least 70% organic ingredients will not display the USDA seal but may list specific organic ingredients on the front of the package.
- Contains organic ingredients – Foods that contain less than 70% organic ingredients will not display the USDA seal but may list specific organic ingredients on the information panel of the package.
What does "Certified Organic" mean in the U.S.?
Keep in mind that even if a producer is certified organic in the U.S., the use of the USDA Organic label is voluntary. At the same time, not everyone goes through the rigorous process of becoming certified, especially smaller farming operations. When shopping at a farmers’ market, for example, don’t hesitate to ask the vendors how their food was grown.