What is Organic Food?

Fresh tomatoes for good health

What do the many organic and natural labels mean? Nutritionist and dietitian Barbara Day explains the meaning behind the labels.

There's no question about it, you are what you eat. We all want to feel like we are giving our family the healthiest food we can. Choosing organic foods over conventionally raised foods may be appropriate for you and your family.

About organic food

Organic food is food that is handled differently from conventional food. Organic food is supposed to be produced without pesticides, synthetic or sewage-derived fertilizers, genetically modified organisms, irradiation, antibiotics, and growth hormones.

The label provides the key to organic products

The U.S. Department of Agriculture has imposed strict regulations regarding how organic products must be labeled. Here's an explanation of some of the USDA's terms.


Single ingredient foods like fruits, vegetables, milk, meats, cheese and eggs plus multi-ingredient foods which contain between 95% and 100% organic can be certified organic. To be labeled 100% organic, a product must contain 100% organically produced ingredients. This does not include added water or salt.

Made with organic ingredients

Products containing between 70% and 95% organic ingredients can include the words "made with organic ingredients" on the front of the product.

Less than 70% organic ingredients

Products containing less than 70% organic ingredients can cite this fact on the back panel.

Certified organic vs. not certified

Certified Organic indicates that a product complies with the regulations of the National Organic Program (NOP) and the product has been certified by an independent, USDA-approved certifying agency.

Other terminology on labels

Some product labels indicate alternative terminology to organic which implies healthier growing practices but these products do not meet the USDA's organic specifications. These terms can be confusing to consumers.

All natural/naturally grown

This term indicates that a product was processed and packaged without preservatives or additives but it may include genetically modified ingredients or ingredients grown with the use of pesticides.

Note: This term is not regulated by the USDA.


This term signifies that livestock is free to roam outside of confined areas. The USDA only regulates this term for poultry. The USDA does not specify a minimum amount of outdoor access required for poultry to be labeled free-range. Free-range products are not necessarily organic.

Raised without antibiotics/no antibiotics used

These products are not necessarily organic, but it does mean that they were raised without growth-producing hormones or antibiotics.


Grass-fed livestock are raised on grasses and legumes. Meadow raised livestock are fed grains. Vegetarian-fed indicates that livestock was not fed any animal parts. These products may or may not be organic.


This is an organic production method that refers to natural rhythms of the sun, moon, planets and stars but the NOP does not certify this terminology. All biodynamic products are supposed to be organic.

Fair trade

Products like coffee, tea, chocolate and bananas are deemed fair traded because they are grown in developing countries. These products may not be organic.

In most cases, organically grown foods are more expensive than conventionally grown foods. As the organic food industry grows and more national food chains carry organic products, the cost to you may decrease as well.

About the author

Barbara Day, M.S., R.D., C.N.

Barbara is a nutritionist with a master's degree in clinical nutrition who's also registered dietitian and has more than 30 years of experience in promoting healthy active lifestyles to consumers. Barbara is the publisher and nutrition editor of Kentuckiana HealthFitness magazine and Kentuckiana Healthy Woman magazine.

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