You’ve probably heard that buying organic is better for your health and the planet, but what exactly does it mean? And what’s the difference between “USDA Organic” and “NSF Organic” and what the heck is “Oregon Tilth”? We’re no strangers to these questions because we have products covering the gamut of these certifications, so today we’re sharing all the basics of what you need to know about organic labels.
First, let’s define “organic.” In trying to describe it in the broadest sense, we really couldn’t say it better than NSF International (who you’ll learn more about later). They write:
Organic is all about how a product or food is grown and processed. For a product to be certified organic in most countries, the operations that produce the organic agricultural ingredients, the handlers of those agricultural ingredients, and the manufacturer of the final product must all be certified by an accredited organic certifying agent. Through onsite inspections and a review of the company’s organic system plan and documentation, these agents verify that organic products are produced and handled according to strict standards. Most organic regulations prohibit the use of pesticides and most other synthetic chemicals, along with irradiation, fertilizers made with synthetic ingredients and bioengineering [aka GMOs].
“Organic” is not the same thing as “natural” – which has little regulated meaning. And, in this context, it also has no relation to organic chemistry. In terms of chemistry, “organic” refers to any compound with molecules containing carbon atoms. All living things are largely carbon-based and many synthetic compounds include carbon molecules too, so – to a chemist – almost everything is organic. They certainly must chuckle to themselves seeing organic labels. Anyway….
Here’s what the different organic labels mean:
The United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) oversees the National Organic Program (NOP), which defines organic as such:
Organic food is produced by farmers who emphasize the use of renewable resources and the conservation of soil and water to enhance environmental quality for future generations. Organic meat, poultry, eggs, and dairy products come from animals that are given no antibiotics or growth hormones. Organic food is produced without using most conventional pesticides; fertilizers made with synthetic ingredients or sewage sludge; bioengineering; or ionizing radiation. Before a product can be labeled ‘organic,’ a Government-approved certifier inspects the farm where the food is grown to make sure the farmer is following all the rules necessary to meet USDA organic standards. Companies that handle or process organic food before it gets to your local supermarket or restaurant must be certified, too.
Here’s how the USDA structures organic labeling:
- “100% Organic” – Foods that are completely organic or made with 100% organic ingredients may say “100% organic” and use the USDA seal.
- “Organic” – Foods that contain at least 95% organic ingredients may use the USDA seal.
- “Made with organic ingredients” – Foods that contain at least 70% organic ingredients may list specific organic ingredients on the front of the package, but cannot use the USDA seal.
- “Contains organic ingredients” – Foods that contain less than 70% organic ingredients may list specific organic ingredients on the information panel (typically the back or side) of the package and cannot use the USDA seal.
As you can see, there are varying degrees of organic and that last label can be especially deceptive. Less than 70% organic could be anything from 69% all the way down to 1%! When you’re reading the ingredients list and looking for which ones are organic, remember that the farther down it is on the list, the less of it there is (and vice versa).
One more thing, the USDA is the regulating agency for food, but the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) is the regulating agency for cosmetics and body care products. The FDA does NOT define or regulate organic body care, but if a body care product uses organic agricultural products, it can still get certification through the USDA program — in which case, the standards and labeling categories above apply exactly the same.
Oregon Tilth is one of the biggest USDA NOP accredited certifiers (the USDA oversees the regulations, but does not actually have any direct interaction with growers or producers). Previously, organic certifiers each had their own standards, but in 2002 the USDA National Organic Program took effect, and the NOP Final Rule became the universal standard used for certifying organic products in the U.S. Now, when you pick up a product labeled organic you know that it was certified to the same standard as all other organic products, regardless of who certified it. Even if it’s imported – it still has to meet the same requirements.
Oregon Tilth is the most respected name in organic certification and they provide a full range of organic certification services both nationally and internationally. Here are a few of the standards they certify for:
Since 1944, NSF has been a leading agency developing a wide range of public health standards and certification programs that help protect the world’s food, water, consumer products and environment. The guiding principles of the NSF organic standard are parallel to those of the USDA organic standard, but are focused on the unique requirements of personal care product formulations.
The NSF Organic certification mirrors the USDA Organic Certification in most aspects, however the "made with" category differs slightly in the allowance of several processes and ingredients that are currently banned by the USDA, including certain synthetic preservatives and biodegradable surfactants. They are allowable and necessary in body care products because the formulation needs are very different from food, and because you’re not eating the products.
- "100 Percent Organic" or "Organic": A product must contain at least 95% organically produced ingredients (excluding water and salt), the remaining percent must be organically grown if commercially available or consist of a non-agricultural substance that is on the NSF Organic approved ingredient list. The product may prominently display the NSF organic seal. All products NSF certified 100% organic must meet the regulations and criteria of the USDA organic certification.
- "Contains Organic Ingredients": This may be used for products that contain between 70 and 95% organic ingredients. The NSF organic standard differs from the USDA organic standard in the allowance of certain ingredients and processes. In this category of NSF organic, products may display "Contains Organic Ingredients" on the front panel along with the NSF organic seal. The product is certified organic through QAI (Quality Assurance International) and all organic ingredients must be certified to the USDA.
If you’ve been following along very closely, you’ll noticed that up above we said that all organic products had to meet the USDA standards, but then there seems to be some loopholes with ingredients and labeling on NSF products. How does that work? Well, it’s because the USDA organic program oversees agricultural products and the NSF organic seal is for personal care products. The NSF labeling differs a little from the USDA labeling we outline above, but the organic standards themselves (how things are grown and processed) are exactly the same.
Make sense? Feeling a bit more informed about organic labels? We sure hope so! But, if you still have lingering questions, as always we encourage you to leave them in the comments and we’d be happy to help answer them.