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Organic vs. Certified Organic: What’s the Difference?

05.11.22

Did you know that products that contain “organic” on the label aren’t necessarily 100% organic? It’s true. That’s why it’s important to understand the differences between organic vs. certified organic products, so you can make the best choice.

For a product to be considered certified organic by the USDA and carry the USDA seal, it must either be 100% completely organic or be 95-99% organic with non-organic ingredients being approved by the USDA.

All other products typically fall into another category: made with organic ingredients. In this category, there is no USDA seal and the products can be made with up to 30% non-organic ingredients.

In this post, we’ll go over what it means for your food to be certified organic, the organic food standards in the US, and we’ll review the three types of organic labels. The next time you visit the grocery store, you’re sure to be prepared. Let’s dive right in.

What It Means for Food to Be Certified Organic

A food that is truly certified organic has been certified by the USDA. According to the USDA, this means:

“Organic foods are grown and processed according to federal guidelines addressing, among many factors, soil quality, animal raising practices, pest and weed control, and use of additives. Organic producers rely on natural substances and physical, mechanical, or biologically based farming methods to the fullest extent possible.”

The USDA will certify two groups of organic products, including those that are 100% organic and those that are simply organic. We know it’s a bit confusing. Here is a quick breakdown of the two:

  • Certified 100% organic: This certification can be given to products that contain 100% organic ingredients, not including salt and water which are natural ingredients.
  • Certified organic: This certification can be given to products that contain a minimum of 95% organic ingredients, not including salt and water. The other 5% of the ingredients must come from the USDA’s allowed list of substances.

These two certifications enable producers to place the USDA seal on each product that is certified. Otherwise, the seal won’t be present.

What If an “Organic” Product Doesn’t Have a USDA Seal?

Many companies try to use the term “organic” for marketing purposes when their products aren’t at all organic or certified. However, this is an illegal practice. To even place the term “organic” on any product, it must be certified through the USDA.

The USDA does allow products that are made from 70% organic ingredients to add “made with organic ingredients” to their product labels without a seal. Yet, any product with less than 70% organic ingredients must refrain from making any organic claims.

Companies that label their products organic when they do not meet the requirements are subject to hefty fines and penalties.

It’s important to note that the USDA requires organic processes to be certified by a USDA-accredited certifying agent prior to product labeling. This ensures that the product is truly organic before hitting your grocery store shelf.

Certified Organic Food Standards in the United States

So, what are the standards when it comes to labeling a product as certified organic? There are many, including everything from farming methods to livestock practices. Let’s go over some of the basics.

Farming Methods

The requirements for farming processes cover everything from the type of land businesses choose to farm to the type of soil they can use. For example, any farm or field that crops are harvested from that will be listed as organic must have had no prohibited substances applied for 3 years prior to harvest.

These fields must also have defined boundaries to prevent crops from coming into contact with prohibited substances from other fields. Producers must also rotate their crops to improve the soil and prevent contamination. And fertilizers containing synthetic materials are prohibited for use.

Additives

Food additives are substances that are added to products to improve their taste or preserve them (you may know these substances as preservatives). And as you probably have guessed, additives aren’t necessarily a welcome thing when it comes to organic food and produce.

Yet, the USDA does allow for some non-toxic additives to help with the processing of organic foods. For example, they allow baking soda, which is important for leavening pancakes and baked goods.

Common additives such as sulfites and nitrates are prohibited in organic products. These additives are commonly found in deli meat, hot dogs, and other processed foods. Other prohibited additives include artificial flavors and colors.

Pest & Weed Control

How do farmers and producers making organic products keep those nasty pests away? Not with synthetic pesticides or chemicals (except those explicitly allowed by the USDA). Instead, the USDA requires producers to remove pests using natural methods such as placing traps or repellants, introducing bug predators, or developing a habitat that brings in pest enemies.

As for weeds, producers are free to mulch using biodegradable materials, mow, allow their livestock to eat the weeds, pull them up by hand or place plastic down as long as they remove it at the end of each season.

Livestock Practices

The USDA is also strict when it comes to the treatment of animals used in the organic food process. And for those of us here at Pacific Foods, this is one of the driving factors behind our dedication to delivering certified organic products.

It all begins with the origin of the livestock. For example, dairy cows used for milk must have been under organic management beginning no later than 1 year before milk production. Otherwise, the cow can’t be used in organic processing.

Animals must be given organically produced feed and the ability to pasture and forage for their food. They also can’t be subjected to drugs such as hormones that enhance growth. As for living conditions, animals must have year-round access to shade and shelter to prevent injuries.

Animals must be able to graze during the grazing season and must have access to clean, dry bedding. And if a producer feels temporary restraints of an animal are in order, it must be due to health conditions, risks to water quality, severe weather, or other covered and humane reasons.

The Three Main Levels of Organic

Here at Pacific Foods, we think it’s important for consumers to understand what’s in the food they eat each day. And with all of the different labels and tactics out there, things can get a bit muddy.

Let’s review the differences between the three main levels of organic products in a bit more detail, so that the next time you shop, you’ll be able to make the best choices.

Made With Organic

Products that state they are made with organic ingredients are not certified organic. This simply means that 70% or more of the ingredients inside the product are organic. The other 30% or less are made of allowed inorganic ingredients.

According to the USDA, these products and the 30% of additional ingredients must be made without GMOs. They must also list what ingredients are organic right on the label. For example, the label must say “made with organic blueberries” instead of simply stating “made with organic ingredients”. There should be no question as to what’s inside the product.

Organic

This is the first USDA-certified tier and includes products that have been certified to include at least 95% organic ingredients. The other 5% of ingredients are approved via the USDA.

Organic foods in this category still don’t contain any growth hormones, unauthorized synthetic pesticides, antibiotics, or synthetic ingredients and they have been produced following organic production processes.

100% Organic

Products in this category have been certified by the USDA to contain 100% organic ingredients and processing aids, besides water and salt. Foods in this category are not only allowed to use the USDA seal, but they will also be able to say they are 100% organic.

This is the most common category for raw and unprocessed produce such as fruits and vegetables. On products that require processing, all organic ingredients must be listed on the label.

When you’re shopping for truly organic products, make sure you look closely for the USDA seal. And when you’re shopping for products other than food, know that “organic” is often misused as these products are not as regulated. Always look at a product’s ingredients before making your selection.

Know What’s in Your Food

At Pacific, we believe in using nature’s finest ingredients in all of our soups, broths, and beverages. As part of our food philosophy, we’re committed to sourcing organic ingredients whenever possible. No additives or preservatives here. Learn more by checking out our products.