Not since “low-carb” has a term in food marketing been as pervasive as “organic.” It’s become a kind of secret handshake between manufacturer and consumer, assuring that the product in question is free of the additives and chemical processing that aren’t likely to be good for our digestive systems. 

Sharp consumers also know that grocery aisles have a longstanding habit of confusing nutritional labels. If something is labeled “organic,” what does it mean? And can you trust it?

It depends on who’s doing the labeling. When you pick up a tomato with a “USDA Organic” sticker, it’s an indication the U.S. Department of Agriculture has confirmed the farming source has adhered to the agency’s standards for organic production. That means pesticides, genetically-modified ingredients, and antibiotics have been avoided, and livestock has had access to outdoor areas. The site can also be subject to annual USDA inspections. 

Does that mean a USDA seal of approval is the end of the story? Not quite. A product labeled “organic” can still have up to 5 percent non-organic material, including ingredients that could have been treated with pesticides. A label reading “100 Percent Organic” closes that loophole, offering relatively few semantic acrobatics. 

While the labels are meant to be reassuring, USDA often accredits third-party inspectors to conduct tours, and the agency has had trouble properly monitoring food from sources outside of the country, where fines and fees for not adhering to their standards are more relaxed.

When shopping, it’s best to look for the organic label and not be diverted by packaging that touts other seductive whole-food terms that have no regulatory oversight; avoid products sourced from multiple countries, which can only increase the potential for labeling errors; and frequent stores with a history of vetting organic produce and meats free of any labeling controversies.