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How to Read Organic Food Labels

The USDA’s National Organic Program has strict rules on what food manufacturers can and can’t say regarding organic foods on food labels. Specifically, if a food label has the National Organic Program’s seal on it, the producer has been certified under the program. The specifics of the wording, however, are where the differences lie.

The USDA’s seal confirms that a product is organic according to its standards.

The USDA’s seal confirms that a product is organic according to its standards.

Here are the USDA’s labeling terms, with explanations:

  • 100 Percent Organic: All ingredients in the product are organic.

  • Organic: At least 95 percent of the product’s ingredients are organic.

  • Made with Organic Ingredients: At least 75 percent of the product’s ingredients are organic.

  • Organic ingredients noted on the ingredients statement: Less than 70 percent of the product’s ingredients are organic, so the producer can only identify the actual organic ingredients within the ingredients listing on the product label.

Meat packaging has additional terminology:

  • Natural: Labels may refer to beef and lamb, in particular, as being produced naturally, but this only means that the meat may not have any artificial colors, artificial flavors, preservatives, or other artificial ingredients. Natural production doesn’t necessarily mean that the animals led the life of Riley gamboling in green fields.

  • Grass fed: It’s considered greener (and kinder) if cows are fed primarily on their natural diet of grass or hay rather than on grain because they can digest grass and hay more easily.

  • Free-range: This means that the animals weren’t confined to cages. There are different degrees of free-range, however — from true free-range, where chickens, for example, are allowed to wander in a fairly large space outside, to more limited conditions, where they may have only short periods outside in an area that’s quite small. It may be difficult to tell exactly what free-range means when you see it on meat packaging, so if you’re looking at a specific product, contact its producer directly for clarification.