As ideas like eating organically or locally have gained popularity, labels touting how or where a food was raised have proliferated, but terms like “organic” and “local” can mean lots of different things. There’s “100% organic,” “organic,” and “made with organic ingredients.” And some terms are regulated by the USDA or other bodies, while others can be used by anyone. The end result is that it can be very confusing to sort out claims in the grocery store and at local markets. Here’s a handy guide to some of the more common terms you’ll come across.
“100% Organic” is a label that can be applied to agricultural products and processed foods that meet certain USDA standards. For agricultural products, it means that they were raised without the use of sewage sludge, synthetic fertilizers, and certain pesticides. It also means that the product is not genetically modified. For livestock, it means that they were given a certain amount of access to the outdoors, only ate organic feed, and weren’t given hormones or antibiotics (with some exceptions). For a processed food to bear the 100% organic label, all the ingredients must be organic.
“Organic” is a USDA label that can be applied to a processed food made out of at least 95% organic ingredients.
Made with organic ingredients
“Made with organic ingredients” is a USDA label that can apply to a processed food made out of at least 70% organic ingredients.
Free-range is a USDA-regulated label that indicates that animals had “unlimited access to food, fresh water, and continuous access to the outdoors during their production cycle.” Though the amount of space allotted to free-range animals can be shockingly small. For instance, for chickens to meet free-range certification their coop must have an access point to the outdoors, but extreme crowding can still be par for the course.
“Natural” is a tricky label. The USDA regulates the use of this term as applied to meat and eggs, but not to anything else. So a breakfast cereal, for instance, is free to claim that it is “natural” without adhering to any sort of outside standard. Meat and egg products “must be minimally processed and contain no artificial ingredients” to bear the “natural” label.
“Hormone-free” is a misleading label that’s not currently regulated by the USDA. Organic milk comes from cows that aren’t given synthetic hormones, and most conventional dairy cows are given synthetic hormones. However, those hormones aren’t believed to be present in the milk (although there is some question on this point), so “hormone-free” is essentially a meaningless term. Some dairy products will say that the cows weren’t given synthetic hormones. These claims aren’t regulated by the USDA, but it’s safe to assume they are true, because it’s illegal to make false claims. Not using synthetic hormones doesn’t affect the milk, but it is better for the cows.
“Local” is an unregulated term that can mean anything. Without an indication of where specifically it came from, this is a relatively useless term. Some farmers markets, such as the NYC Greenmarket program require that participating farms lie within a specific radius of the city. To find out where produce marked local in your area is coming from, speak with your grocer or farmer.
For more details on some of the terms above, head over to the USDA organic definitions page.
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