What Does 'Organic' Really Mean?

What Does 'Organic' Really Mean?

Breaking news of e-Coli contamination, salmonella, pesticide and herbicide warnings, and even “Mad Cow” continue to put fear in our minds. How can we ever feel safe eating again? Food manufacturers stick labels on foods to make us think what we're about to eat is “safe,” but what do those labels actually mean and should we trust them?

Why Choose Organic?

Generally, Certified Organic is the USDA (United States Department of Agriculture) label verifying food is produced without the use of pesticides, herbicides or synthetic fertilizers. In addition, they have not been genetically modified, irradiated - or in the case of animal products – been given antibiotics, growth hormones, or nonorganic feed. Some experts claim that organic produce contains more nutrients than its conventional counterpart, but the jury is still out. Organic produce does, however, ensure that produce is delivered in the packaging that nature intended and it will always nourish your body the way it should.


When shopping for fruits and vegetables, choosing organic labels is especially important when it comes to the “dirty dozen," the Environmental Working Group’s list of the twelve most contaminated crops. If purchasing produce from the grocery store, look for stickers that contain a 5-digit number starting with a 9, designating it as an organic product. While it is best to choose organic as often as possible, it may not be available or financially feasible. In that case, make sure to thoroughly wash your produce.

Meat, Poultry, and Eggs

How do you pick the healthiest options for meat, poultry and eggs? Read below to find out the different labels that are commonly used and how to navigate your purchase.

  • Cage-Free – This label may suggest a healthy product, but it is, in fact, quite deceiving and no different than your standard chicken or egg. It means the chickens were not confined to cages and had enough space to walk around, but didn’t necessarily have access to the outdoors and may still be put through processes like beak cutting. Unless also labeled organic, these may still be fed non-organic, grain feed.
  • Free-range – This term is regulated by the USDA. To bear this label, poultry must have access to the outdoors, although a minimum amount of time outdoors has not been established. Eggs cannot be regulated by this measure.
  • Grass-fed – Grass-fed beef has been shown to provide more Omega-3 fatty acids compared to grain-fed beef. In order to be considered grass-fed, the majority of an animal’s feed must be from grass or forage. Surprisingly, a 'grass-fed' label does not mean the animal had access to the outdoors. So, unfortunately, we’ve been duped again into thinking these grass-fed cows once lived on happy farms.
  • Natural – The term “natural,” although not certified, only applies to meat and poultry. According to the USDA, natural refers to products containing no artificial ingredients, added colors and are minimally processed. You may also see this label on packaged foods. In that case, ignore it; marketing gurus found it sells more products, despite having no definition or regulations. In some surveys, people actually thought foods claiming to be natural were overall better choices than organic foods.


If consuming dairy, the only way to go is Organic. Non-organic dairy cattle are continuously injected with hormones to boost milk production. These hormones may alter your own endocrine system and lead to hormone-driven diseases such as breast, prostate and ovarian cancers.


There are currently no organic standards for fish. When choosing fish, stick with wild-caught instead of farm-raised to avoid toxins such as PCBs. Also reduce or eliminate consumption of high-mercury-containing fish such as swordfish, King mackerel, Ahi tuna, tilefish and shark.

Packaged Foods

Foods that come in boxes, bags and cans stamped with an Organic label tend to instill a health halo. Think about organic chocolate chip cookies, organic potato chips, or organic granola bars; these are not health foods and should be eaten with just as much caution as the original version. However, if you do eat these products (which all of us deserve to every now and then!), here’s how the labels stack up:

“100 percent organic” – must contain (excluding water and salt) only organically-produced ingredients and processing aids.
“Organic” – must consist of at least 95 percent organically produced ingredients.
“Made with organic ingredients” – products that contain at least 70 percent organic ingredients may use this phrase and list up to three of the organic ingredients on the front display panel.

Any product containing less than 70 percent organic ingredients are prohibited from using the term 'organic' anywhere on the principal display panel, however they may use it to describe organic ingredients on the information/ingredient label.

Having a better understanding of where your food comes from and how to read labels can turn your shopping cart into a bounty of healthy foods. Remember to take the time when you are shopping to read labels and go for quality over quantity. You can’t put a price on good health!

Registered Dietitian

Comment by Ceez
January 14, 2013
The New York Post wrote an article today 1/14/13 "don't eat your organic veggies" by Henry Miller . It basically states organic is a rip off . Can you please check this out. I've been using The Nutribullet since 12/26/12, now I'm scared even with organic we are poising ourselves. Don’t eat your organic veggies By HENRY I. MILLER Last Updated: 10:41 PM, January 13, 2013 Posted: 10:25 PM, January 13, 2013 Any shopper can tell that organic fruits and vegetables are expensive. Now a peer-reviewed academic study tells us that they’re no more healthful than conventional products. Researchers at Stanford University’s Center for Health Policy analyzed 237 studies in the scientific literature for evidence that organic foods are safer or healthier. They found that fruits and vegetables that met the criteria for “organic” are on average neither more nutritious than their far cheaper conventional counterparts nor less likely to be contaminated by pathogenic bacteria like E. coli or Salmonella. Many folks buy organic to avoid exposure to harmful levels of pesticides. Bad idea: Yes, nonorganic fruits and vegetables had more pesticide residue, but more than 99 percent of the time the levels are below the permissible, very conservative safety limits set by regulators. Ironically, the designation “organic” is itself a synthetic bureaucratic construct that makes little sense. It prohibits the use of synthetic chemical pesticides — except for a long list of exceptions detailed in the Organic Foods Production Act. Moreover, the definition permits most “natural” pesticides (and also OKs the use of pathogen-laden animal excreta as fertilizer). These permitted pesticides can be toxic. As evolutionary biologist Christie Wilcox explained in September in a Scientific American article: “Organic pesticides pose the same health risks as non-organic ones. No matter what anyone tells you, organic pesticides don’t just disappear. Rotenone [a common organic pesticide] is notorious for its lack of degradation, and copper [another one] sticks around for a long, long time. “Studies have shown that copper sulfate, pyrethrins, and rotenone all can be detected on plants after harvest — for copper sulfate and rotenone, those levels exceeded safe limits.” In fact, there is a well-known association between rotenone exposure and Parkinson’s Disease. Another issue: The vast majority of pesticidal substances that we consume occur in our diets “naturally,” and are present in organic foods as well as conventional ones. UC/Berkeley biochemist Bruce Ames and his colleagues found that “99.99 percent (by weight) of the pesticides in the American diet are chemicals that plants produce to defend themselves.” And: “Natural and synthetic chemicals are equally likely to be positive in animal cancer tests.” Thus, consumers who buy organic to avoid pesticide exposure are focusing their attention on just a one-hundredth of a percent of the pesticides they consume. And the animal testing that causes concern about man-made pesticides should raise as much worry about far more common, and fully “organic,” natural pesticides. But isn’t buying organic better for the environment? Nope. The low yields of organic agriculture — typically 20 percent to 50 percent lower per acre than conventional agriculture — impose various stresses on farmland, and especially on water consumption. The government definition of “organic” isn’t focused on the composition, quality or safety of the actual food; it is essentially a set of acceptable practices and procedures that a farmer intends to use. So, for example, chemical pesticide or pollen from genetically engineered plants wafting onto an organic crop on an adjacent field doesn’t cause the harvest to lose its organic status. Organic imports also carry a human toll. As Missouri farmer Blake Hurst notes, “In the many places around the world where organic farming is the norm, a large proportion of the population is involved in farming. Not because they choose to do so, but because they must. Without pesticides, hand weeding is the only way to protect a crop.” And, the back-breaking drudgery of hand-weeding typically falls largely to women and children. Save your money. It’s more cost-effective, environmentally responsible and humane to buy conventional food than the high-priced organic stuff. Henry I. Miller, a physician and molecular biologist, is the Robert Wesson Fellow in Scientific Philosophy and Public Policy at Stanford University’s Hoover Institution. Have a comment on this PostOpinion column? Send it in to LETTERS@NYPOST.COM!
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