Organic Foods

Organic foods are foods that are grown, processed, and handled using government-regulated farming methods. Here's how foods are certified to earn the label “USDA Organic.”

What are organic foods?

Organic foods are foods that are grown and processed using government-regulated farming methods. Organic farming and foods use:

  • No synthetic fertilizers or pesticides (with exceptions).
  • No antibiotics or growth hormones for livestock.
  • No genetically modified ingredients.
  • No artificial flavors, colors or preservatives.
  • No sewage sludge.
  • No radiation on their foods.

Organic food is not necessarily pesticide free. Natural pesticides may be used in the production of organic foods.


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Is organic the same as “natural"?

No. The term “organic” refers to how food is processed in addition to the food itself. Currently there is no formal definition for the use of “natural” on food labels has been issued by the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) or the Food and Drug Administration (FDA).

Food manufactures may use this term when food is free of synthetic preservatives and artificial sweeteners, additives, colors and flavors. Natural also can mean that meats are from livestock that weren’t given growth hormones or antibiotics, and that produce wasn’t grown with pesticides or other synthetic crops enhancers.

The only government-regulated use of the term “natural” involves meat and poultry. Meat labeled “natural” may contain no artificial ingredient or added color and be only minimally processed. The label must explain the use of the term.

How do you know if a food is organic?

All foods labeled “USDA Organic” must meet standards set by the USDA. The USDA evaluates how food is grown, processed and handled. If a food meets these standards it may be labeled USDA Organic.

Small food producers who sell less than $5,000 per year may also call themselves organic if they meet these standards. However, they don’t have to go through the certification process (but can’t label their food as USDA Organic).


What does “certified organic” mean?

To be certified USDA Organic, farms and food producers must meet certain standards. Only products that contain at least 95% organic ingredients can be certified organic and display the USDA seal. There are different certification levels of “organic.” These are:

  • 100% organic. “100% organic” can be used to label any product that contains 100% organic ingredients (excluding salt and water, which are considered natural). Most raw, unprocessed farm products are “100% organic.” Many grains, oats and flours can also be labeled “100% organic.”
  • Organic. “Organic” can be used to label any product that contains a minimum of 95% organic ingredients (excluding salt and water). Up to 5% of the ingredients may be nonorganic agricultural products that are not available as organic.
  • Made with organic. “Made with organic” can be used to label a product that contains at least 70% organically produced ingredients (excluding salt and water). The non-organic portion must also follow USDA guidelines. These products cannot be labeled USDA Organic.
  • Specific ingredient listings. The specific organic ingredients may be listed in the ingredient statement of products containing less than 70% organic contents. These products cannot be labeled USDA Organic.

Certified organic farms and food processors must be recertified every year. A farm cannot be certified organic until 36 months have passed since any prohibited substances were used on the land.

What do other labels that I see on meats mean?

  • Animal Welfare Approved. This means that the meat came from animals fed organically, raised on pastures or ranges by independent farmers, and handled in a humane fashion.
  • American Grassfed Association certified. This means the animals were never given antibiotics or hormones. The animals were raised unconfined on pastures, received a 100% forage diet, and were born and raised on American family farms.
  • Humane Farm Animal Care certified. This means the animals had unlimited access to the outdoors, they were not confined, did not receive any antibiotics (unless sick) or hormones and were handled in a humane fashion.

What are organic farming processes?

For crops, there are several criteria farms must meet to be certified organic.

  • Land must have had no prohibited substances used on it for at least three years.
  • Soil fertility and crop nutrients are managed through tillage and cultivation practices, crop rotations and cover crops.
  • Crop pests, weeds and diseases are controlled primarily through management practices including physical, mechanical and biological controls – not synthetic pesticides. When these practices are not sufficient, a biological, botanical or synthetic substance approved for use by the USDA may be used.
  • Organic seeds must be used when available.
  • The use of genetic engineering, ionizing radiation and sewage sludge is prohibited.

For livestock, the following criteria must be met:

Animals for slaughter must be raised under organic management from the last third of gestation, or no later than the second day of life for poultry.

  • Producers must feed livestock agricultural feed products that are 100% organic.
  • Dairy animals must be managed organically for at least 12 months in order for milk or dairy products to be labeled organic.
  • Preventive management practices must be used to keep animals healthy. Producers may not withhold treatment from sick or injured animals. However, animals treated with a prohibited substance may not be sold as organic.
  • Living conditions for organic meat, must agree with their natural living conditions and behaviors. All organic livestock and poultry are required to have access to the outdoors year-round. Cows must be out on pasture for the entire grazing season, not less than 120 days. These animals must also receive at least 30% of their feed from pasture.
  • Certified organic foods must also meet several handling criteria. These are:
  • Only non-agricultural ingredients on the USDA’s National List of Allowed and Prohibited Substances are permitted.
  • In a multi-ingredient product labeled as “organic,” all agricultural ingredients must be organically produced, unless the ingredient is not commercially available in organic form.
  • Handlers must prevent the commingling of organic with non-organic products and protect organic products from contact with prohibited substances.

What are the benefits of eating organic foods?

The health benefits that are linked to eating organic foods are increasing. However, it’s not certain that eating organic foods will make a difference in one’s health.

In comparison to non-organic foods, organic foods offer:

  • Reduced exposure to pesticides and insecticides. This is a significant benefit of organic produce and grains.
  • Increased exposure to omega-3 fatty acids. Livestock fed through grazing usually have higher levels of omega-3 fatty acids, which provide healthy heart benefits.
  • Less exposure to cadmium. Studies have shown significantly lower levels of the toxic metal cadmium in organic grains.
  • Increased levels of vitamins, minerals, antioxidants and other beneficial micronutrients. Organically grown fruits, vegetables and grains have higher amounts of vitamin C, vitamin E and carotenoids; plus higher amounts of the minerals calcium, potassium, phosphorus, magnesium and iron.
  • Less bacteria. Less exposure to bacteria in meat.
  • Less exposure to antibiotics. Eating organic meats leads to less exposure to antibiotics and growth hormones that have been used to treat livestock. These medicines may lead to antibiotic resistance and other problems in humans.

Is organic good for the environment?

Organic foods and organic farming are built on the principles of preserving soil and water quality and creating little or no pollution. Not using chemical or sewage as fertilizer reduces toxic runoff into rivers, lakes and ultimately into drinking water.

Animals are never given antibiotics or hormones and must have organic feed and safe, cage-free living conditions.

Crop rotation, cover crops, dense planting and animal manures are methods used to provide nutrients to plants as well as to control weeds and insects.

If I can’t afford to eat organic foods, what can I do to make my diet healthier?

The biggest downside to organic foods is higher production costs, which are passed on to consumers.

If you want to buy organic foods but cannot afford to do so for all of your produce, the non-profit Environmental Working Group reports the following fruits and vegetables have the highest and lowest pesticide levels when not purchased organic:

Highest pesticide levels:

  • Strawberries.
  • Spinach.
  • Kale.
  • Nectarines.
  • Apples.
  • Grapes.
  • Peaches.
  • Pears.
  • Tomatoes.
  • Celery.
  • Potatoes.
  • Hot peppers.

Lowest pesticide levels:

  • Avocados.
  • Sweet corn.
  • Pineapple.
  • Onions.
  • Papaya.
  • Sweet peas, frozen.
  • Eggplant.
  • Asparagus.
  • Cauliflower.
  • Cantaloupe.
  • Broccoli.
  • Mushrooms.
  • Cabbage.
  • Honeydew melon.
  • Kiwi.

If you cannot afford to purchase organic produce, washing and scrubbing fresh fruits and vegetables under running water can help remove bacteria and chemicals from the surface of fruits and vegetables. Peeling fruits and vegetable can also remove surface pesticides, but also reduces nutrients.

Medically Reviewed

Last reviewed by a Cleveland Clinic medical professional on 07/15/2020.

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