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Food for thought from my friends at Dirt—a home for sharing stories and meals. Head to to explore more on sustainability, one mouthful at a time.

In the vast sea of food terms and grocery labels, “organic” is still one of today’s most exhausted buzzwords. From the environmental benefits to the health advantages, what’s not to love? Organic foods have managed to filter into mainstream America to the tune of growing consumer awareness. Production is increasing significantly: 20-25% each year since 1990. Clearly, people are paying attention and the industry is listening.

Despite the shift, things still aren’t 100% transparent. A label that reads “organic” only says so much. And when the label requirements are laced with exceptions, we’re looking at some serious gray areas.

For example, an organic label generally means your food was grown with more ethical practices than industrial farms. But there’s still so much left out of the big picture. What’s the farm like? Is it big or small? Is every part of this food totally organic? The list goes on.

The United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) defines organic as a standard of food production according to approved methods. “These methods regulate food additives, pest control, and quality of soil and water,” shares Katerina Melekos RD, a Registered Dietitian in Montclair, New Jersey. The USDA is also responsible for creating and enforcing those rules.

There are also many consumer assumptions about organic food. “Everything organic doesn’t automatically mean that it’s superior,” points out Melekos. “For example, a food can be processed and organic.”

And with big guys like Wal-Mart and Costco sneaking into the organic industry, it’s crucial to poke and prod. The key is to look at the technicalities of organic labels. “Most people don’t realize that there are different categories,” shares Melekos. “Each one represents a varying level of organic food in each product.”

Because companies aren’t required to give consumers the full low-down, it’s up to you to get in the know. Not sure where to start? We’ve broken down the details for you. With this information, you’ll be shopping organic in no time.

“Don’t be afraid to ask questions! Local farmers are very proud of the food they produce.”

What Is Organic?

Organic food production is all about maintaining biodiversity. Production is meant to protect—not disturb—the natural relationship with our ecosystem. Food chains, soil health, and the natural resilience of plants are at the top of the list. Organic farming honors the biological processes making the world go round.

Unlike industrial farming, zero manmade chemicals, pesticides, irradiation, or sewage sludge is used in organic production. Genetically modified organisms (GMO’s) are also left out.

“GMO’s are defined as any living organism with DNA that has been artificially altered,” says Jessica Berliner, a Holistic Nutritionist in Portland, Oregon. These GMO’s are designed to protect crops from things like drought and insects.

Sounds useful, right? Not always. “The problem is that insects have developed a greater immunity to GMO’s,” says Berliner. As a result, more pesticides often end up being used. The vicious cycle continues.

Not only do GMO’s damage soil integrity and natural plant resilience, but they’ve also been linked to cancer and poor digestive health—just to name a couple.

The Organic Label Low-Down

Much like fruits and vegetables, each organic label is a little different from the next. Here’s how to decipher each one.

01. ‘100% Organic’

Every last bit is organic. The USDA label is used.

02. ‘Organic’

This is where it gets tricky. Ninety-five percent is considered ‘organic—meaning 5% can be approved non-organic ingredients. That last 5% could be anything, such as non-organic cornstarch or gelatin. And while this category boasts the buzzword and the USDA label, that doesn’t mean the entire product is organic. Sneaky, sneaky.

03. ‘Made With Organic Ingredients’

At least 70% of the food is organic. This lower minimum leaves an entire 30% to be potentially made of non-regulated ingredients. Unsurprisingly, those ingredients tend to be additives found in processed foods—such as carrot juice color and xanthan gum. No USDA label is allowed for this one. Generally, if there isn’t a USDA label, the product is automatically 70% organic.

04. Organic Ingredients Are Listed

Individual organic ingredients are listed on the packaging. However, the organic factor only applies to those ingredients. Important to note: There are no regulations for the rest of the food.

05. GMO

Companies don’t need to give you a heads up if their food has GMO’s. Unfortunately, up to 80% of food in American supermarkets contain GMO crops. According to Berliner, the most common players in the game are corn, soybeans, and sugar beets. And since the industry loves to use soybean oil and high fructose corn syrup, GMO’s are everywhere. Over 60 developed countries have banned GMO’s and won’t even accept GMO foods from the United States. Just saying.

06. Chemical Baggage

While organic farming drastically limits the use of synthetic chemicals, it doesn’t mean the environment is completely void of pesticide residue. Even if a chemical has been previously banned, it might still be hanging around. To top it off, there are a few synthetic pesticides the National Organic Standards Board allows for organic farming. You can check them out on The National List provided by the USDA.

07. Meat and Dairy Mind Games

Organic meat and dairy opens the door for even more assumptions. The organic seal does ensure animals are free of antibiotics, hormones, and drugs. It also means they are raised in more ethical conditions than those on industrial farms. It doesn’t, however, guarantee the best living conditions possible. “This is especially true with the large industrial organic farms,” says Melekos.

So… what’s a conscious foodie to do? Aside from brushing up on your label knowledge, engaging with farmers makes all the difference. It helps you look past the label and into the origin of your food. Berliner suggests asking vendors at farmers’ markets about the seeds they use, how they care for their crops, and overall farming practices.

“This is the best way to understand what’s going in your body,” she says. “Don’t be afraid to ask questions! Local farmers are very proud of the food they produce.” Talking to farmers will also give you a better picture of the environment, workers, and preparation—more than a terribly confusing organic seal ever could.