What does organic mean? With an increase in the health-conscious movement, some people stress the importance of eating only organically produced food. Farmer’s market tables are covered with produce labeled as organic, and the same can be found at grocery stores. Plus, on top of organic produce, grocery store shelves are full of canned and boxed foods with organic labels too. 

These labels usually come with a higher price tag, but what does organic mean? Should you be buying organic produce for a healthier life? It’s a tough call to make without all the right information, but we’ve got you covered with all the important details on what organic means, and why it matters. Read on for the answer to "what does organic mean?" and more.


What Does Organic Mean?

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If you've scanned the grocery store and found item after item stamped with an organic label and caught yourself wondering what organic really means, don't worry, you're not alone, and we've got your answer. So what does organic mean? When it comes to food, organic essentially means void of pesticides, synthetic fertilizers, preservatives, chemicals, or additives. While this is what all organic food generally means, there are different details for organic meat, produce, and multi-ingredient packaged foods. 

While organic food is basically food that is produced naturally, it’s important to know that just because a food label says it’s natural, doesn’t mean it’s organic. To meet organic standards, food products are held to a higher level of regulation than conventional and natural foods and need to meet some important criteria. The answer to "what does organic mean" is a little different for produce, meat, and packaged foods. Below are some criteria that different organic foods have to meet.


Organic Produce

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To be certified as organic, produce has to be harvested from soil that is not contaminated by pesticides or synthetic fertilizers. The soil used for produce production has to have been free of contaminants for at least three years before harvest. Most times, buffer zones are even required between organic farms and conventional farms to eliminate cross-contamination. 

Sometimes, if a specific synthetic product has to be used to reach a particular harvest or production purpose, that product will be tested and researched by the USDA and allowed if it proves to be safe for human consumption. An example of this exception is the use of pheromones to keep insects away from crops in a non-toxic way.


Organic Meat

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To be considered and certified as organic, meat has its own set of guidelines. Organic meat must be fed 100 percent organic feed and forage. On top of being fed organically, organic meat has to come from animals that may engage in their natural habits such as grazing. Organic meat also requires that animals be raised hormone and antibiotic free.


Organic Processed, Multi-Ingredient Foods

While most people think of fresh produce and meat when they think organic, there are organic processed foods too. These foods are required to meet certain guidelines as well. Multi-ingredient processed organic foods need to include organic ingredients and exclude artificial flavors, preservatives, and colors.
While some processed multi-ingredients foods contain 100 percent organic materials, others may be labeled “made with organic ingredients”. This means that the product contains at least 70 percent organic ingredients.


Understanding Food Labels

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We've covered what "organic" means, but what about the label? There are many organic certifiers, with the largest and most known one being USDA organic. It’s important to understand that while the guidelines upheld by these certifications are important for health, they can be extremely expensive. Many large companies can easily pay for organic certification, but some smaller farms can’t afford organic certification even though they follow all the guidelines and meet the regulations for organic food.


When you’re at your local farmers market, make sure to ask if a product is organic - even if it’s not labeled. Now that you understand the answer to "what does organic mean?" and know about the labels too, let’s dig into the benefits of organic food.

Benefits of Eating Organic

Now you know the answer to "what does organic mean? And it's time to find out why it matters. Organic food has vast benefits, with the greatest benefit being that organic food is free of artificial ingredients, pesticides, and chemicals, so when you eat organic, you don’t poison your body with these toxins. Essentially organic food is safe for you to consume. It’s especially important for children to eat organic foods whenever possible as their developing bodies can be more sensitive to harmful toxins.

Eating organic isn’t just beneficial to you, it’s good for the environment too. Conventional (non-organic) food production usually incorporates processes that can damage and harm the natural environment. These processes can contaminate and harm soil and water quality. Unlike conventional farming, organic farming practices can actually benefit soil and water quality.


Should I Buy Organic?

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Organic food has many benefits, and now that you understand the answer to "what does organic mean?", It’s easy to see why organic produce is important. With that said, is it worth the price tag that comes with the organic label? While being able to maintain a completely organic diet is ideal, for many people the cost of organic produce is just too high. If you can afford to purchase all of your food organically, then great, the benefits are well worth it. If you’ve got more of a budget when it comes to groceries, then you can still help your health and the environment by focusing on buying organic where it really counts. 

Not all conventional foods are treated with the same amount of pesticides, chemicals, and synthetic pesticides. Luckily food can be tested for pesticide and contaminant levels and the Environmental Working Group (EWG), a non-profit dedicated to protecting both human and environmental health, use these test results to make lists of foods you should definitely buy organic whenever possible, and foods that are okay to buy conventionally if you have to. The list of foods you should be purchase organically is called the Dirty Dozen.  Here’s what’s on it:

  • Tomatoes
  • Celery
  • Potatoes
  • Sweet Bell Peppers and Hot Peppers
  • Strawberries
  • Spinach
  • Nectarines
  • Apples
  • Grapes
  • Peaches
  • Cherries
  • Pears 

While these foods are usually heavily sprayed and found with high levels of contaminants, there is produce that isn’t as heavily sprayed that is safer to buy conventional if you have to. Read on for when it’s okay to skip out on organic.


When to Not Buy Organic

If you can’t buy all organic, you now know there's the Dirty Dozen list of foods you should really focus on buying organic, but there’s also the Clean Fifteen. The Clean Fifteen is a list of produce that is okay to buy conventional. Here’s what's on the Clean Fifteen:

  • Avocados
  • Sweet Corn
  • Pineapples
  • Cabbage
  • Onions
  • Frozen Sweet Peas
  • Papayas
  • Asparagus
  • Mangoes
  • Eggplants
  • Honeydew Melon
  • Kiwis
  • Cantaloupe
  • Cauliflowers
  • Broccoli 
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While all the produce on this list isn't heavily sprayed and is considered safe to buy conventional, it’s been reported that a tiny number of summer squash, sweet corn, and papayas in the United States are genetically modified. To avoid genetically modified produce purchase these crops organic.


How to Save Money

Following the Dirty Dozen and Clean, Fifteen lists can help you know when to buy organic and when it’s okay not too, but there are a few other tips on saving money when it comes to organic produce. 

Farmer’s markets are usually a good choice for organic produce, and you can find tons of organic fruits, vegetables, and more for less than at the grocery store. Remember food at a farmer’s market might be organic even if there is no label, so make sure to ask. It’s also a good idea to buy fruits and vegetables that are in season. Produce that is in season is usually cheaper than produce that isn't, so buy in-season produce to save money. 

If there’s certain produce that you want all year round, buy lots of it while it’s in season and freeze it. You can also try buying non-perishable food items in bulk to save money and always make sure to check for coupons and grocery store weekly specials before shopping.



What does organic mean? The answer is simply that organic food is food that's produced in a way that avoids toxins and unnatural ingredients that can harm your body and the environment. Conventional food is sprayed with harsh chemicals and grown with synthetic fertilizers that seep into crops, soil, and water and have negative impacts on human and environmental health. Organically produced crops that avoid these pesticides and fertilizers deliver foods that are toxin free and are safer to consume and help encourage healthier soil and water too.

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While it would be amazing if all food was grown organically and everyone could afford to buy all organic produce that’s not the reality. While eating all organic might be a challenge, you now understand the importance of eating organic and have tons of information on how to eat organically without breaking the bank. Keep the Dirty Dozen and Clean Fifteen lists on your phone or written down for your next grocery trip and enjoy feeling better about your grocery cart knowing your helping yourself and the environment.