Organic: What it actually means

We asked, you answered: What does organic mean? Your answers spanned a broad range, from honing in on no synthetics to selecting every option in the poll :) We had one reader write in saying, he thought he knew, but now realizes he's confused - and your answers seemed to speak generally to the same - an array of perspectives that couldn't all be right! I can relate to this confusion - due to the proliferation of terms like organic, non-GMO, local, natural, and pasture-raised - many of which overlap - it's hard to keep straight what anything means. 

So, now that we've left you hanging, we're going to cut to the chase with the definition of organic, and then explore some of the complications, nuances, and interesting tidbits. Well cover definitions of organic produce, organic meat, and organic multi-ingredient products. 

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Basic definition of organic for produce: 

  • No synthetic materials. There are some accepted synthetic materials, so this isn't 100%. It's a little bit of a within-reason clause.
  • No pesticides. Farmers must use physical, mechanical, and biological controls for pests and weeds. Where these are insufficient, a farmer may use a biological, botanical, or synthetic approved for use.
  • Organic seeds. When available. This is another within-reason clause.
  • No genetic engineering, sewage sludge, or radiation

So, that's it: No synthetics, no pesticides, organic seeds, non-GMO. It doesn't necessarily mean that the produce is grown sustainably or naturally (vague term though that is) - but organic is overall more environmentally friendly than alternatives because farmers must use more natural solutions to stave off pests and provide nutrients. And the produce may be healthier for you: organic produce has been shown to have more antioxidants and nutrients, though it's unclear if the increased levels are sufficient to provide additional benefits.


Organic farming has less yield than conventional agriculture, which has led some scientists to question whether organic farming is more water- and land-intensive. While it seems that organic farming may require more water and land to generate the same volume of produce, that seems to be becoming less and less the case with time as organic farming practices evolve.

In addition, organic farming appears to be, overall, better for land and water because there is less run-off into water and land is refurbished rather than depleted. Some studies have shown that organic crops may be more resilient when times get tough, such as during a drought, due to healthier, more-robust soil. And, many studies have shown that growing organic crops may be more energy efficient (think: you don't have to create pesticides and fertilizers in factories, which requires fossil fuels. So, even though composting to create fertilizer releases gases, we may be looking at less damage overall from organic processes). 

Basic definition of organic for livestock:

  • Fed 100% organic feed
  • Able to access the outdoors year-round
  • No antibiotics or hormones. The USDA specifies that animals must be treated when sick, but if they are treated with prohibited materials, those animals no longer qualify as organic.
  • Pasture-raised for the entire grazing season, and no less than 120 days a year. Animals must receive at least 30% of their food intake from pasture. So, worth noting, this does not mean that they are 100% pasture-raised (which would be pretty impossible in most climes). 

So, that all sounds good right? But, how does the "pasture-raised" in organic contrast with the labels "pasture-raised" or "cage-free" or "free-range"? Hang on, I thought the confusion was over. Booooo.

Let's start with the simplest. Cage free means just that: the animals didn't have cages. This can still mean pretty atrocious conditions. Think chickens stuffed in barns, still unable to move, but technically not in a cage. Free range is sadly not much better, even though it temporarily evokes some nice imagery and is better marketing. Free range means that animals must have access to the outdoors. Animals can still be packed so tightly together that they are unable to actually get to the out-of-doors. But, in theory, they could. So, free range and cage free are pretty much marketing gimmicks. There's still hope...


Beyond the actual conditions that our food is being raised in, one of the main issues is that pasture-raised meat, eggs, and dairy are actually healthier for us - for example, eggs from chickens raised on pasture are higher in beta carotene (which also gives the yolks a more orange color). That beta carotene is coming from a healthier grass diet. Beef from cattle raised on pasture is lower in saturated fats and higher in healthier fats, like omega-3 fatty acids and mono-saturated fats.

So, that brings us to pasture raised versus organic. Well, one of the catches with organic is that an animal's feed must be organic. If an animal is pasture-raised, therefore, the pasture must be certified organic. Roaming on a field? That field must be certified. This can be prohibitively expensive and, frankly, seems at least a little silly. I've spoken with one of the farmers at our local farmer's market about this - she sells organic eggs and she sells pasture-raised - the difference really comes down to the price. So, in terms of health benefits, you're probably getting the same thing from the organic and pasture-raised eggs. 

It's also worth acknowledging that getting certified to be organic can be prohibitively expensive for smaller farmers, and smaller farmers often use less aggressive farming techniques anyway. So, if you're shopping locally, and you come across a non-organic farmer, it's worth asking them about their farming practices. They may end up sounding a lot like organic ones - and the farm simply can't afford to become certified and has prioritized other business needs over getting the label. 

Basic definition of organic for multi-ingredient products:


    It's worth acknowledging that there are different types of organic certification for products that have more than one ingredient. I'll be honest, they aren't particularly interesting and are fairly straightforward. In summary, you've got 100% organic, "organic" (may include up to 5% non-organic ingredients), "Made with" products are 70%+ made with organic ingredients and cannot use the organic seal or claim to be organic and cannot contain any ingredients made with prohibited methods like genetic engineering, and lastly, products may list specific ingredients that are organic when they are less than 70% organic. Side note: for "made with" products, we found it interesting that all non-agricultural components must be on a National List of approved ingredients. For processed organic foods, this includes things like pectin in fruit jams and enzymes in yogurt. 

    So, I hope this has helped illuminate what organic actually means - as well as some of the overlapping and ancillary terms used alongside organic. This post has gotten lengthy enough, so tomorrow, we'll take a look at more of the philosophy behind shopping organic, beyond just the label. 


    1. Organic 101: What the USDA Organic Label Mean. USDA. s

    2. Understanding the USDA Organic Label. USDA.

    3. Are Organic Standards in Jeopardy? Watchdogs Say Yes. PR Watch.

    4. Organic farming more drought resistant: Report. CNBC.

    5. How College Students Are Being Misled About ‘Sustainable’ Agriculture. National Review.

    6. Organic Production and Handling Standards. USDA.