Consumer Guide: How to Shop for Real Organic Food and Products

Make sure you're buying real organics and not 'greenwashed' products

As a consumer, maybe you're considering buying more organic products. That's a wise plan. Organic products have many benefits for consumers, such as:

  • Organic food contains fewer harmful hormones and pesticides than conventional food.
  • Organic production helps conserve and protect water.
  • Organic agriculture reduces carbon dioxide and helps slow climate change.
  • Organic farming helps combat serious soil problems, such as erosion. Erosion doesn't sound like a consumer issue, but it truly affects the planet, causing problems for the land, food supply and humans.

The above said, many companies use the term organic incorrectly in order to bulk up prices. If you want to buy real organics while avoiding fake organics, see the tips below.

Get to Know What Organic Really Means

Organic aisle in grocery store
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In the most basic of consumer definitions, organic means crops that are grown with fewer pesticides and harmful fertilizers, or livestock (meat or poultry) raised without the use of drugs, hormones, or synthetic chemicals.

Organic rules and practices are also applied to processed products, such as jam made from organic berries or organic baby food made with carrots and grains. For example, if jam is labeled as organic there are many chemicals and additives that are not allowed in the finished product.

Sadly, the term organic is only strictly regulated when a product is agricultural, for example organic spinach is highly regulated by the National Organic Program (NOP) but NOP has fewer regulations in place for organic soap that contains some non-agricultural ingredients.

In the United States, a product is considered legally organic when the product:

  • bears the USDA Organic Seal
  • has been certified organic, and
  • contains 95% or more organic ingredients.

Exception to the above three rules: It's expensive to obtain organic certification and so there are some farmers are not certified, even though they do grow completely organic crops.

However, the term organic is often used incorrectly by companies trying to sell products as "organic" when the product is not truly organic. Before paying money for organics, it's useful to research more about what organic really means.


Read Your Labels

USDA Organic seal
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In the United States real certified organic products are certified by a certifying agent and are allowed to wear the USDA Organic Seal. While the seal is often printed in green, it may be black as well. The color doesn't matter — black or green, it's still certified organic.

If a company uses the organic label and their product is not really organic and NOP finds out, the company can be fined as much as $11,000.

While not all organic companies or growers choose to place the organic seal on their products, most do. Therefore, looking for the organic label is one of the best ways to make sure you're buying true organic products.

If a product has the organic seal on it, this means that the product is made with 95% to 100% organic ingredients. If a product contains less than 95% organic ingredients, NOP policy doesn't allow that product to wear the seal.

Beyond the organic seal, you may also see organic wording on a product. For example, a 100% certified organic product may have "100% Organic" written on the packaging. A product that contains just 95% organic ingredients can say "Organic" on the packaging.

If you see a product with packaging wording that states, "Made With Organic Ingredients," then the product contains at least 70% organic ingredients.

Be aware that many companies will try to trick consumers by placing look-alike labels and on packaging or tricky wording, so don't get fooled. Look for the organic seal when shopping and check out the links below to learn even more about real vs. tricky, fake labels.


Check the PLU Code

Organic produce
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When shopping for fresh organic produce, you may not be able to find the organic seal at all times. A second option is to look at the PLU codes (numbers) on produce stickers.

PLU codes are the little numbers on stickers that are entered when you buy your groceries. These PLU codes are identification numbers for produce, and organic PLU codes are different than conventional codes.

If a product is organic, the code will start with the number 9 and is followed by four more numbers. If the product is not organic, its PLU code will be a 4 digit number that starts with the number 4. More

Support Local Organics

'Eat local' printed on a crate of vegetables
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Buying local organic food and other products is a good practice that has many benefits for both people and the planet.

You can buy organic food locally, but as I noted above in the label section, not all organic growers label their products as organic.

Some organic growers don't label their products because they're not officially certified. Often this is because they grow a small amount of crops annually, so it's not worth the cost to get certified. As an example, you may find true organic products at local farmers' markets or local farms or through a Community Supported Agriculture program, but the products simply won't be labeled with the organic seal. This doesn't mean the products aren't organic, though.

When you buy locally, ask the grower about their practices. See how they manage pests (with chemicals or not) and ask if they use safe fertilizers. For more help buying local organics, see the resources below:


Beware Commonly 'Greenwashed' Products

Apples with labels
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In the United States, organic sales are growing at a fast pace. That's good news for real organic companies, but it's also bad news for consumers who are trying to find true organic products.

Many companies, hoping to cash in on organic's success, may do the following:

  • Label their products with organic wording even if their products aren't organic
  • Use terms on their packaging that people often confuse with organic, such as natural or free-range
  • Try to confuse you by designing packaging that resembles organic packaging

This is called "greenwashing." Greenwashing is when a company tries to use eco-friendly, or in this case organic terms or traits, to market and sell products when in reality the product is not honestly organic.

Some products are far more likely to greenwash than others. Two important product types to watch out for include the following:

  • Body care products and cosmetics, such as soap, lip gloss or shampoo. You'll see these products sporting labels like "Organically Awesome" or "Organic Wear," when the product is not really organic at all. Shopping at Whole Foods can help you out here, as they have stricter body care labeling rules than most other stores.
  • Store brand products. Many grocery stores are creating their own lines of natural and organic products, and you need to be very careful when buying them. While some of these store-brand products are indeed certified organic, many are not, and the store will go out of their way to make sure you think they are organic. For example, Kroger has their own line of natural and organic products called Simple Truth. The Simple Truth line includes real organics, which are labeled with the organic seal. The line also carries "natural" non-organics, but they are packaged with almost identical packaging to the organics, right down to the green circle. With store brands, if you don't see the USDA organic seal, don't assume it's organic.

Other commonly organic greenwashed products include baby care products, yard care products and cleaning products. To avoid products that are falsely marketed as organic, it's best to look for and purchase organics that carry the official organic label. More

Take Help When You Go Shopping

Worker giving orange to girl in market
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Even if you've done your research, shopping can be confusing. Greenwashing companies with their fake green labels and fake organic terms can make it hard to find real vs. fake organic. On top of that, even NOP labels can be confusing. First of all, don't be afraid to ask questions at the store. While co-ops and other dedicated organic food stores like Whole Foods Market are more likely to answer your questions correctly, it can't hurt to ask a store employee if you need help locating real organics.

If you're afraid you'll forget what's real vs. fake organic food once you get to the store, simply carry a cheat sheet with you. Below are some great organic cheat sheets that can help you buy real organics.

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