Organic-food labels may all look different, but their wording is strictly defined by the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Here's what you need to know.

By Kathy Merrell
Updated September 13, 2004
Brian Henn

U.S. Department of Agriculture 100 Percent Organic: This is the gold standard. It applies to fruits, vegetables, meat, poultry, and packaged foods that have been certified by state agencies licensed by the USDA. It means that the farmer has raised the product without using any synthetic pesticides or fertilizers, antibiotics, genetically engineered seeds, irradiation, or sewage sludge. Organic animals must eat certified-organic feed that contains no growth hormones or animal by-products. Prepared foods must contain 100 percent certified-organic ingredients. The small stickers on individual fruits and vegetables indicate whether an item has been certified as organic.

Organic: This term is for packaged foods with more than one ingredient, such as soups, cereals, and cookies. It ensures that at least 95 percent of those ingredients are organically grown and that the remaining 5 percent are approved by the USDA's National Organic Standards Board (NOSB). The NOSB has a list of nonsynthetic pesticides, for example, that have been approved for organic farming.

Made With Organic Ingredients: Prepared foods with this description must contain at least 70 percent organic ingredients, three of which must be listed on the package. The nonorganic ones must be NOSB-approved.

Free Range: USDA regulations allow for a generous definition with this term. Free-range could mean the coop door is open for five minutes a day, whether or not the chickens go out.

Natural: No government agency regulates the use of this word.