What Does An 'Organic' Food Label Really Mean?

Food labels are endless, here’s how to decipher some common ones.

A trip to the grocery store should be simple, but if you're shopping with the hopes of walking away with organic and ethically sourced food you may need to do a little extra work.

When we shop, we often look at expiration dates, nutrition labels, and any other packaging labels that stand out. Those can serve as a helpful insight into where the product you're about to purchase comes from and how it was made. However, the label is only helpful if you actually understand it. This is where some of us, myself included, can fall short in our knowledge.

I am not a vegan. Yes, I enjoy eating chicken, eggs, beef, and other animal-based products. But, do I enjoy the idea of buying chicken from a company that pumps the chickens full of steroids, deprives them of sunlight, and crams them together so tightly they can barely move? No, absolutely not. The same goes for all other animal-based products. Going completely vegan isn't for everyone, but that doesn't mean we can't care about the ethics behind our food.

There are hundreds of different food labels out there and each one makes a specific claim about the food it contains. Some of those labels can be extremely misleading when it comes to the claims made about how an animal product made its way from farm to shelf.

Marie Burcham, policy director for non-profit The Cornucopia Institute, advises consumers to have healthy skepticism toward food labels. The Cornucopia Institute investigates brands within the food production industry to improve transparency, educate consumers, and elevate what it considers "authentic organic" foods and farmers.

What does organic mean?

The term "organic" gets tossed around a lot (much like the salads it sometimes describes), but there are federal regulations that legally determine whether something can be labeled organic or not. In the case of the U.S. Department of Agriculture and its requirements on meat, "standards require that animals are raised in living conditions accommodating their natural behaviors, fed organic feed, and not administered antibiotics or hormones."


Within the USDA's definition of organic and what gets the department's certified label, there are four different organic labels a product could receive:

  • 100% organic: This product is completely organic in that all ingredients meet that labeling standard.
  • Organic: At least 95% of the product's ingredients are organic.
  • Made with organic... : At least 70% of the product's ingredients are organic with some specific restrictions on the ingredients that are not organic.
  • Specific organic ingredients listed: The product cannot carry an organic label at all and has less than 70% organic ingredients in it.
  • "[Organic] doesn't just have a negative connotation of things it doesn't allow," Burcham says. "It also requires certain practices that we know are positive...things that we know have a scientifically proven environmental benefit."

    The USDA's definition of organic leaves an unfortunate amount of room for interpretation and opportunity for producers of animal-based products to skirt around the rules. Rather than look at the USDA's regulations as the gold-standard, it's more realistic to consider them the bare minimum.

Common food labels explained

While the "organic" label is the broadest label people often see on grocery store products, there are hundreds of others that also appear to make claims about how healthy or humane a product is.

For example, "grass-fed" might give the impression of cows grazing on a beautiful open field with healthy grass growing all around. However, Burcham explains that in the case of "grass-fed" labeling for beef, all beef in the United States is fed grass in the early portion of its life. So, you could buy "grass-fed" beef that was processed in a feedlot with terrible conditions and very little grass, but it would still be labeled grass-fed.


Burcham adds that something similar could be said of the label "free-range" eggs. The USDA defines free-range as, "Birds are provided shelter in a building, room or area with unlimited access to food and fresh water and continuous access to the outdoors during their production cycle; the outdoor area may or may not be fenced and/or covered with netting-like material." You would think this means the birds are given a wide open space outdoors to move around and soak up the sun.

Unfortunately, Burcham explains, that this could mean the birds are housed in a building with a little door that leads to a small porch where only a few hens could be out at a time. These conditions would meet the requirement to be labeled "free-range" because the birds would be able to spend some time outside, though limitedly.


The term "natural" is also often seen on food packaging, but what does it really mean? For a food product to be made "naturally" sounds positive and in terms of animal products it could sound more humane. However, if an animal food product has the label "natural" it actually has nothing to do with how the animal was raised. In this case, natural just means that the meat does not contain artificial ingredients, additional coloring, and was minimally processed.

Resources to check if your products are organic and/or humane

To promote transparency and to keep consumers informed, The Cornucopia Institute has developed scorecards rating food producers based on their ability to uphold organic food standards to the highest degree. Producers are scored on a scale of 1 to 5, and those who receive the top score have shown to go above and beyond the requirements of organic food labeling.


The scorecards cover a number of food categories such as eggs, beef, poultry, dairy, cereal, and even toothpaste. Use these to see if your usual go-to brands are truly organic enough. It may disappoint you to know that Whole Foods, Wegman's, and Aldi's Simply Nature brand all score only a one out of five on the beef scorecard. On the bright side, Organic Valley, which sells dairy products in Walmart, Whole Foods, and other grocery stores, scored a four out of five on the dairy scorecard.

And, if you come across a food packaging label at the store you're not sure about, you can consult A Greener World's breakdown of food labels. A Greener World is a nonprofit organization focused on promoting and creating sustainable farming models by working with farmers and ranchers.


"Consumers should be skeptical about labeling claims," Burcham says. "Yes it could mean something about that product, but that doesn't guarantee it's the common-sense meaning."