How to Shop for Real Organic Products

Buying organic products is a wise choice. 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 which creates problems for the land, food supply, and humans.​

The challenge in shopping for organic products is that many companies use the term organic incorrectly in order to attract organic product buyers and charge higher prices. Below are the best tips for ferreting out real organic products from the fake.

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Get to Know What Organic Really Means

Organic produce aisle in supermarket
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The organic label is used to indicate 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 a 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 the 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
  • Contains 95% or more organic ingredients

Exceptions to the Rules

It's expensive for companies to obtain organic certification, so some farmers are not certified, even though they grow completely organic crops.

Conversely, the term organic is often used incorrectly by companies trying to sell products as "organic" when the product does not meet the organic label standards.

Before paying money for organic products, it's important to research what organic really means.

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Read Organic Product Labels

USDA Organic Stamps
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In the United States, real organic products are certified by a certifying agent and are allowed to use the USDA Organic Seal. While the seal is often printed in green, it may be black as well. 

If a company uses the organic label, but its product is not really organic and the NOP finds out, the company can be fined for each violation.

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.

Having the organic seal 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 bear the seal.

Beyond the organic seal, you may also see organic wording on a product. For example, some products might have "100% Organic" on the label. A product that contains 95% organic ingredients can only use the term "Organic" on the packaging.

If you see a product with packaging 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 or deceptive wording on the packaging, such as "natural." 

While it can be confusing to shop for organic products, looking for the official organic seal is the first step to identifying true organic products.

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Check the PLU Code on Produce

Full Frame Shot Of Vegetables For Sale In Market
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Not all organic produce will have the organic seal.; however, the PLU code on the produce's sticker will indicate if it's organic or not.  

PLU codes are the numbers on stickers that are used to identify the produce during checkout at the grocery store. Organic PLU codes have a 5-digit number that starts with the number 9. Non-organic produce has 4-digit PLU codes that start with the number 4

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Support Local Organics

'Eat local' printed on a crate of vegetables
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Buying local organic food and other products has many benefits for local businesses, people, and the planet.

Not all organic growers label their products as organic 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, local farms, or through a Community Supported Agriculture program, but the products may not have the organic seal. 

When you buy locally, ask the grower about their farming practices. See how they manage pests (with chemicals or not), and ask if they use safe fertilizers.

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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 bad news for consumers who are trying to find true organic products.

Many companies, hoping to cash in on organic's success using green marketing practices, 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

When a company uses eco-friendly or organic terms on their packaging of non-organic products, it is called "greenwashing." 

Some products are far more likely to be greenwashed than others. Two important product types to watch out for include:

  • 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 organic at all. Shopping at Whole Foods is a good option if you want organic body care products, as it has 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 that you need to be careful about when buying. While some of these store-brand products are indeed certified organic, many are not. For example, Kroger has their own line of natural and organic products called Simple Truth, which includes real organic products bearing the official organic seal. However, the line also carries natural-labeled non-organic products, that have nearly identical packaging to the organic one, including a green circle. Remember, if it doesn't have the official USDA organic seal, it may not be organic.

Other commonly organic greenwashed items include baby care, yard care, and cleaning products. To avoid products that are falsely marketed as organic, look for and purchase items that carry the official organic label.

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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 for organic products can be confusing. Companies that use greenwashing tactics with fake green labels and deceptive organic terms can make it hard to find real organic products. On top of that, even NOP labels can be confusing.

If you're confused or unsure about a product, ask questions at the store. Co-ops and other dedicated organic food stores like Whole Foods Market are more likely to answer your questions correctly than other stores might be.

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