What Does "Organic" Really Mean?

By: Megan Landean, M. Ed.

Before 2020, organic food sales were already on the rise. The emphasis on health and eating right is ever growing as we continue dealing with COVID-19, which means more people are turning to organic products, specifically food. According to the Institute of Food Technologies, organic food sales have risen to over 20% compared to what they were in 2019. With this rapid uptick in organic foods, it’s important to know… what exactly is "organic food"?

First, let’s talk about what to look for when shopping for organic foods- and what each label means. Organic foods are regulated and monitored by the US Department of Agriculture. If a product claims to be 100% Organic, that means that only organically produced ingredients are in that food. These products are also permitted to have the “USDA Organic” shield.

If a product claims to be Certified Organic, that means the food has at least 95% organically produced ingredients. The remaining 5% must be approved by the USDA. These products are also allowed to have “USDA Organic” shield.

If a product claims to be Made with Organic Ingredients, that means the food has at least 70% organically produced ingredients. These products are not allowed to have the “USDA Organic” shield.

Now, let’s talk about the guidelines that need to be followed in order to have that “USDA Organic” shield:

To be classified as an organic plant product, growers must adhere to these guidelines:

  • Exclude synthetic fertilizers.
  • Exclude synthetic pesticides or applied insecticides.
  • Exclude genetically engineered plants or animal products.
  • Use environmentally sound and sustainable growing practices.
  • Use of 100% organic animal feed.
  • Require animals have mandatory outdoor access when weather is suitable.
  • Exclude antibiotics, growth hormones, or animal by-products from feed.
  • Manure must be managed to prevent water or crop contamination.

To be classified as an organic animal product, farmers must adhere to these guidelines:

  • Use of 100% organic animal feed.
  • Require animals have mandatory outdoor access when weather is suitable.
  • Exclude antibiotics, growth hormones, or animal by-products from feed.
  • Manure must be managed to prevent water or crop contamination.

Unfortunately, just because a label says it’s organic and all of the above guidelines have been followed, doesn’t necessarily mean you’re in the clear. Foods can still contain chemicals in them due to something called pesticide drift. Pesticide drift occurs when pesticides from an area “drift” due to weather patterns or come up in deep soil to a location where organic products are being grown or transported. The National Pesticide Information Center has all the up to date information on pesticide drift, and what you can do to best avoid it.

If you’re out shopping and you want to know the best choices when looking to avoid pesticide drift- keep in mind the Produce Industry’s 2020 “dirty dozen” and “clean fifteen”:

Dirty Dozen:

  1. Strawberries
  2. Spinach
  3. Kale
  4. Nectarines
  5. Apples
  6. Grapes
  7. Peaches
  8. Cherries
  9. Pears
  10. Tomatoes
  11. Celery
  12. Potatoes


Clean Fifteen:

  1. Avocados
  2. Sweet corn
  3. Pineapple
  4. Onion
  5. Papaya
  6. Sweet peas (frozen)
  7. Eggplants
  8. Asparagus
  9. Cauliflower
  10. Cantaloupes
  11. Broccoli
  12. Mushrooms
  13. Cabbage
  14. Honeydew melon
  15. Kiwifruit

It’s important to become and stay an informed shopper! It can not only keep you healthy but can also help save money. For more information, reach out to our Trilogy staff.