So, What Does Organic Actually Mean?

Let me say up front, this is a tricky one. In order to get to the heart of this organic question, let’s take a look at the United States Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) rules and regulations and their definitions around organic foods.

First off, the USDA uses the term organic to indicate that a food was produced through approved methods. “These methods integrate cultural, biological, and mechanical practices that foster cycling of resources, promote ecological balance, and conserve biodiversity. Synthetic fertilizers, sewage sludge, irradiation, and genetic engineering may not be used” (

The USDA goes on to explain that in order for a product to be labeled with the official seal, it must first have been scrutinized by the USDA through compliance, certification, and enforcement of regulations put forth by the USDA. After a product passes the USDA oversight, it may be labeled organic. This label then technically means that the product is at least 95% organic. Meaning, at most, 5% may not be. In addition, products with multiple ingredients with the official organic seal may refer to only some, not all ingredients being organic. For example, a chicken soup may be labeled organic but that does not mean that all ingredients were held to the USDA standard. Don’t worry, I am also confused and suspicious at this point.

Let’s move on to the other labels that we often see that fit under the organic umbrella. When it comes to livestock products, labels often sound similar but differ in regulation and definition. Such as:


Free-range: We may see this regulated USDA label on things like eggs or meat. It indicates that the animals were provided shelter with unlimited access to food, fresh water, and outdoors during their production cycle. The outdoor access may or may not be contained.

Cage-free: This label means that the animals were able to roam freely within the designated enclosed area with unlimited access to food and fresh water during production cycle.

Natural: This means that the food was minimally processed and contains no artificial ingredients. It does not take farm practices into consideration. In addition, the USDA only regulates this label if it contains meat, poultry, or eggs, there are no standards for other natural food products.

Grass-fed: The USDA regulates that the animals receive the majority of their nutrients from grass. That is it. It does not consider the farming practices and does not limit the use of antibiotics, hormones, or pesticides.

Pasture-raised: There is no USDA labeling policy for this as there are too many variables in this system.

Humane: Again, there is no USDA regulation for this label. This label claims that animals were treated humanely during the production cycle, but it is difficult to verify.


Once again, I am confused and suspicious. I understand that this information is from a government funded program and as such, the definitions are careful in choosing the language used. However, how are we supposed to navigate through this organic maze if all of these definitions seem to come with their own caveats? Well, I am not sure what the answer is, but I do know that educating ourselves is the first step.

Moving forward, here is my take away. I will think of organic foods in terms of the farming practices used to produce the food. I think it important to make this distinction because there is a large debate over organic foods having higher nutritional value than conventional foods. A study done by The Annuls of Internal Medicine found no significant vitamin or mineral advantage with organic food. So, is organic food more nutritious? Probably not. Is organic food good for us? Probably. Even though we may not gain more nutrients from organic food, the farming practices are still good for the environment (e.g., no pesticides or chemical additives) and they are good for our bodies (e.g., no hormones or antibiotics). My advice is to understand the labels on your food and discern how your values align with those labels. Let us all become informed consumers!


By: Kathryn Chambers

Counseling Intern

Olive Branch Counseling Associates, Inc





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