USDA organic seal

No doubt you’ve seen the organic label on a variety of foods—from produce and meat to bread and cereal—even in the smallest grocery stores. But how can one little word like “organic” cover all those different foods?  

It does. The underlying rules that govern the use of the USDA organic seal—or even the word organic—are essentially the same for all foods. “Organic comes with a long list of criteria and stringent verification rules farmers and food processors have to meet,” says Charlotte Vallaeys, M.S., Consumer Reports’ senior food and nutrition policy analyst. But not every rule applies to every type of food. 

Some consumers may not realize just what’s behind the organic label. For example, 38 percent of American grocery shoppers said they prioritize looking for an organic label and far more—48 percent—prioritize looking for a “pesticide-free” label, according to a 2018 nationally representative Consumer Reports survey of 1,005 U.S. adults. But organic has strict standards behind it—including rules that harmful synthetic pesticides can’t be used—while the term “pesticide free” is meaningless and unregulated. 

More on Organic Food

Other consumers may go for pricier organic versions of foods because they assume the organic label means, basically, everything good—that they’re getting the most nutritious and environmentally responsible food possible. We’re talking pesticide- and chemical-free crops or eggsand milk produced by happy livestock raised in organic pastures. But while the organic label is a powerful and meaningful one, it doesn’t actually confer all the benefits those many consumers assume it does. And still other people think they’re buying organic when they’re not. “I’ve heard people say, ‘I bought it at Whole Foods, so it’s organic,’ but that’s not always the case,” Vallaeys says.

To help you understand just what you’re getting when you buy organic, we took a close look at the five top-selling organic foods—cow’s milk, prepackaged salad, eggs, health and nutrition bars, and bread—according to the data analytics company Nielsen.

Cow's Milk

What organic means: To be certified as organic, milk has to come from cows that have been raised organically since the last third of their mother’s pregnancy. The rules of organic farming require that these cows be raised in a way that “accommodates their health and natural behavior,” with access to sunlight, fresh water, shelter, clean bedding, shade, fresh air, and outdoor exercise—all of which, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, reduces the animals’ stress and risk of disease. 

Organic cattle can be given only organic feed, grown without synthetic pesticides or genetically modified organisms (GMOs). (Conventionally raised cows, by way of contrast, may have been fed diets supplemented with candy, sawdust, and even poultry feces.)  

While the cows can receive certain meds, such as vaccines and pain relievers, when needed, they can’t be given hormones that increase milk production or antibiotics for disease prevention. (If they become sick and need antibiotics, they must be given the drugs, but they’re no longer considered organic livestock and their products can’t be sold as organic.) This rule doesn’t necessarily have a direct effect on your health, but mass use of antibiotics in livestock helps create antibiotic resistant strains of bacteria, so buying organic means that you’re supporting livestock management practices that don’t contribute to the development of dangerous superbugs, bacterial infections that don’t respond to antibiotics. 

What it doesn’t mean: There’s no difference between conventional and organic milk when it comes to calories, amount of protein, and amount of calcium. Research does show that organic milk has more omega-3 fatty acids and conjugated linoleic acid (another type of fat considered healthful) than conventional milk. But while consuming omega-3s is linked to reduced risk for health conditions like heart disease, the amounts found in milk are still relatively small—probably too small to affect your health.

And even organic cows haven’t necessarily been roaming the clover pastures every day. By law, they must get at least 30 percent of their food from pasture, grazing on grass. However, the rest of their food can be corn or grain (as long as it’s organic). If you’re looking for milk (or meat) from cows that are grassfed throughout their entire lives, look for The American Grassfed seal. Though it isn’t backed by the government, the nonprofit organization that oversees the program, the American Grassfed Association, ensures that the cows are 100 percent grassfed. Another seal to look for is PCO Certified 100% Grassfed. The standards for this require organic certification, but the independent third-party certification agency’s rules also stipulate that the animals are fed only grass and forage and no grain.

Prepackaged Salads

What organic means: The bagged greens you find in the produce section at the grocery store—and any other type of organic produce—have to be grown according to “practices that support the cycling of on-farm resources, promote ecological balance, and conserve biodiversity,” according to the USDA. That means that the farms that grow these greens cannot use harmful synthetic pesticides (which can remain on fruits and vegetables). They must use natural ways to control pests and weeds and enrich the soil, such as using crop rotation, fertilizing with manure or compost instead of synthetic fertilizers or sewage sludge (which is derived from, yes, municipal sewage), and planting “cover crops” to prevent soil erosion. 

So this choice is good for the environment and also potentially good for you. One analysis of 343 studies published in 2014 in the British Journal of Nutrition found that organic produce contained higher levels of antioxidants—plant compounds that may prevent chronic diseases—than conventional produce of the same type. Another benefit that organic greens may have: Every year, the USDA tests fruits and vegetables for pesticide residue, and it regularly finds it. But organic fruits and vegetables are less likely to have pesticide residue, according to a Consumer Reports analysis from 2015, and when they do have some residue, it’s likely to be less.

What it doesn’t mean:  You probably aren’t getting substantially more nutritious greens. That same analysis of 343 studies didn’t find that organic vegetables had any more vitamins and minerals than conventionally grown ones. 

And organic produce can’t be treated with most synthetic pesticides, with farmers instead relying on the PAMS system (prevention, avoidance, monitoring, and suppression), which can involve natural techniques like bringing in predatory insects to eat the ones attacking the crops. However, if those strategies fail, produce can be treated with “naturally occurring microorganisms” or pesticides derived from plants, as well as a few approved synthetic ones that have been shown not to be harmful to health.

Eggs

Someone feeding chickens.

What organic means: The chickens must be raised organically from the age of 2 days; have much the same rights to a safe, healthy environment as cattle do; and are subject to the same rules against antibiotic use (the USDA forbids hormone use in any chickens, conventional or organic). Also like organic cattle, they have to be fed only organic feed that isn’t genetically modified and is grown without synthetic pesticides or GMOs. Accordingly, the major benefits here are that the farms that produce organic chickens and eggs use sustainable, healthy farming practices and don’t contribute to the development of superbugs

What it doesn’t mean: “Organic doesn’t mean the chickens are roaming free outdoors,” Vallaeys says. While organic standards specify that the birds must have outdoor access, the USDA has not enforced that rule.

Health and Nutrition Bars

What organic means: Ingredients like oats, nuts, and fruit in these bars are required to be grown organically, using sustainable practices without GMOs or synthetic pesticides. 

In processed foods, like bars, the processing itself has to comply with the organic rules, which ban the use of most synthetic processing aids or artificial ingredients, such as artificial colors, that are allowed in conventional foods. For example, organic rules prohibit the use of the synthetic solvent hexane, which is typically used to process soybeans and turn them into soy protein isolate—"a common ingredient in nutrition bars and protein powders,” Vallaeys says. 

What it doesn’t mean: Just because a bar is organic doesn’t mean it’s necessarily more nutritious than a conventional bar. While there’s a health benefit from eating something that hasn’t been exposed to pesticides, an organic bar may be unhealthy in other ways. “Organic doesn’t mean that a bar is going to have less sugar, for instance,” Vallaeys says. 

She recommends reading the ingredients list. “If an added sugar (like brown rice syrup, cane syrup, or agave syrup) is listed in the first two or three ingredients, I don't buy it,” she adds. “I look for bars with ingredients I recognize as food—oats, nuts, seeds, and fruit.”

Bread

What organic means: As in other packaged products, the ingredients (at least 95 percent by weight) used to make the bread must be certified organic and contain no ingredients prohibited in organic food production regulations, such as artificial sweeteners and preservatives. 

What it doesn’t mean: An organic loaf might still be relatively processed and not contain whole grains. “If you have to choose between organic white bread and conventional 100 percent whole-wheat bread,” Vallaeys says, “opting for whole wheat is a better nutritional move.”