Organic food has been on an upward trend for years, and with increasing consumer awareness about health-conscious eating, the trend shows no signs of slowing down anytime soon. But what is organic food anyways?

bilberry, pasture, strawberry, sweet, raspberry, blackberry, blueberry, berry
Heather Feibleman

Many walk around with a sense of 'organic' being synonymous with superior, better-for-them, or a reason to roll their eyes. Make no mistake about it, to obtain an organic certification, a food has to meet certain requirements, which are well-defined in the United States by the USDA, and by other government agencies in other countries. 

What Does 'Organic' Mean?

Sally Bornbusch

According to the USDA, their organic certification is an official symbol that the food or food product has been grown and processed according to their comprehensive organic federal guidelines.  

The guidelines put out by the National Organic Program (NOP) are numerous, and cover everything from soil quality, animal raising practices, pest and weed control, and additives used (and no GMOs allowed).

apple, sweet
Scott Harrington

To get an official organic certification, a farm can't just wake up one day and think "Hey! I think I'll be organic today." Produce only earns the USDA organic certification if it has been USDA documented that the soil used to grow the foods have had no prohibited substances, including synthetic pesticides and fertilizers, for at least three years.

That takes some serious commitment. Going organic is a long-term and costly investment for the farmer, and they don't see any payoff for years.

Nina Listro

Some companies, like Kashi, are aiming to support transitionary farms with some of their products to help encourage and elevate future organic farmers.

For meat to be USDA organic, a farm must meet regulations that require animals are raised in conditions that allow them to live with "natural behaviors," such as grazing on pasture. They must also be fed 100% organic feed and forage, and cannot be administered any antibiotics or hormones.

Sally Bornbusch

When it comes to processed foods (think organic cereal, hummus, granola bars, etc), foods cannot contain any artificial colors, flavors, or preservatives, and most of their ingredients must be organic, with a few exceptions (like pectin and baking soda). 

This is why some organic packaged foods have different labels. For example, if you see the phrase "made with organic ingredients," the food must contain at least 70% organic products. If you see the "100% USDA Organic" label, your product is made from all organic ingredients. 

grass, pasture
Katie Cruz

It should be noted that while organic produce cannot use a designated list of outlined pesticides, they can use select synthetically made chemicals that meet the USDA organic standards.

If you want you verify whether something is indeed organic, you can search the USDA Organic Integrity database to see if your product has been certified by the NOP.

The Debate About Organic Food

vegetable, pasture
Amanda Shulman

There are ongoing debates about the pros and cons of organic foods. Advocates for organic foods say the chemicals used for conventional produce are harmful to the earth and that GMOs are kinda sketch.

Others point out that organic and non-GMO farming can be less efficient, and therefore require more resources used in food production, thereby harming the planet in other ways. 

produce, Market, Farmers market, farmer's market, farm, squash, pasture, vegetable, pumpkin
Denise Uy

And when it comes to the big question of nutrition, it was widely believed that organic foods were not nutritionally superior to conventional counterparts, but recent evidence is starting to challenge this data, and for now, the jury is out.

No matter what your thoughts are on organic food, you can't deny it's having a moment, and we can expect to see even more organic products on the shelves in years to come.

To learn more about what 'organic' means, visit the USDA website.