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Organic 101: Allowed and Prohibited Substances

Posted by Miles McEvoy, National Organic Program Director in Food and Nutrition Research and Science
Jan 25, 2012

The basic rule for organic agriculture is to allow natural substances and prohibit synthetic. For livestock like these healthy cows, however, vaccines play an important part in animal health—especially since antibiotic therapy is prohibited.
The basic rule for organic agriculture is to allow natural substances and prohibit synthetic. For livestock like these healthy cows, however, vaccines play an important part in animal health—especially since antibiotic therapy is prohibited. (Photo courtesy Pleasantview Farm, an Ohio certified organic dairy farm)

This is the second  installment of the Organic 101 series that explores different aspects of the USDA organic regulations.

Organic standards are designed to allow natural substances in organic farming while prohibiting synthetic substances. The National List of Allowed and Prohibited Substances—a component of the organic standards—lists the exceptions to this basic rule.

The National Organic Standards Board (NOSB) is designed by law to advise the National Organic Program (NOP) on which substances should be allowed or prohibited.  Made up of dedicated public volunteers appointed by the Secretary of Agriculture, board members include organic growers, handlers, retailers, environmentalists, scientists, USDA-accredited certifying agents and consumer advocates.

NOSB members must use specific criteria when voting, including the need for the substance and its impacts on human health and the environment.  In specific cases, the NOSB also votes to allow non-organic versions of a substance if it isn’t available in organic form on a scale large enough to support organic agriculture.

Some synthetic substances are listed as exceptions to the basic rule and are allowed for use in organic agriculture.  For instance, pheromones have long been used as an effective, non-toxic way to “confuse” insects that may otherwise infest organic crops, especially fruit. Likewise, vaccines for animals are important disease prevention tools against many infectious diseases, especially since antibiotic therapy is prohibited in organic livestock.

The National List also allows certain processing aids, such as baking soda. This substance lightens (or leavens) the dough for organic pancakes, baked goods, and other products.

Conversely, some substances like strychnine and arsenic are examples of natural toxic substances that are prohibited in organic production.

The process for adding or removing allowed substances is an open process, allowing for direct input from the organic community.  The process typically follows these steps:

  1. An individual or organization submits a formal petition to add, remove, or change the listing for a specific substance.
  2. NOSB sub-committee reviews the petition. A third-party technical report is often used to gather scientific information about the substance and to identify any negative impacts to human health or the environment.
  3. The NOSB sub-committee publishes a proposed recommendation for the substance with request for public comments before a public meeting, typically held twice per year.
  4. During the meeting, the NOSB discusses the public comments related to the petition and then votes in a public forum. All NOSB meetings are free and open to the public.
  5. The NOP reviews the NOSB’s recommendation. The NOP can reject the NOSB’s recommendation to add a substance to the National List, but can’t add a substance that hasn’t been recommended by the NOSB.
  6. If the NOP agrees with the NOSB’s recommendation, it initiates rulemaking to amend the National List for that substance.

Through this process the NOSB devotes countless hours to discussing the range of perspectives on each substance under their review. The public comment process plays an important role in ensuring that all perspectives are considered thoroughly.

Since this citizen advisory board represents all key sectors of the organic community, the NOSB’s recommendations provides the NOP with invaluable insight into which substances should be allowed or prohibited in organic agriculture. The NOP invites the public to participate in this process as we shape the future of organic agriculture.

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May 08, 2018

Where can I see regulations for gums and polysaccharide s

Jun 26, 2018

Is Purified Protein of Pea allowed as a fining agent for certified "made with organic grapes" wines? Many thanks.
Many wine products suppliers say yes, but some certifying agents say no.

Jay Dralle
Jul 20, 2018

I'm looking much more for the USDA Organic seal. I'm assuming that glyphosate (Monsanto or other companies) is not allowed in the food production in order to receive the USDA seal?

Ben Weaver
Jul 27, 2018

@Ivà - The Organic Wine: Oversight, Labeling and Trade fact sheet and the Labeling Organic Wine guide provide assistance in interpreting the USDA regulations for wine being labeled and marketed as ‘organic.’ In addition, the USDA organic regulations describe composition requirements for organic products, including wine.

To get additional information on specific products, we encourage you to contact a USDA-accredited certifying agent.

Certifying agents are responsible for evaluating whether the products produced and handled by a certified operation comply with the USDA organic regulations. As such, they are best positioned to answer questions like these. You can work with any accredited certifier you would like based on your needs - If you are not currently working with a certifier, you can find one at:

Piller Gregerson
Aug 16, 2018

The Organics 101 link, the very first link in this, is a 404. Please fix this. I came looking for information and found that instead.

Sep 02, 2018

Carrageenan, and any ingredient that states some kind of gum in gluten free products ARE TOXIC. I just had celiac.
I starting drinking protein drinks and gluten free foods. I became so sick, weak,
IBS. Stomach pains. All ingredients in
Boost, Ensure, Protein powders, foods
Has Carrageenan. Now I have autoimmune
Disease. Stomach inflamed, joints inflamed. As soon as I stopped eating or drinking any product that had Carrageenan in it. My stomach lining is starting to heal. Now today I see that
Ensure Max drink just came into the stores for old people to drink that has Carrageenan with caffeine. The government is miss guiding - and the companies putting this ingredient into our food and drinks are tricking. Old people to kill us with tumors and gallbladder, cancer.
What you do to trick people will come back your way. I bet your not drinking theses
Products. Get rid of red seaweed, any product that has the last ingredient that has gum in it and Carrageenan.

beth malik
Sep 20, 2018

I am making a product and want it to be organically certified. This product has a percentage of dried wild porcini mushrooms. They are not organically certified, but do they need to be in order to have the product certified organic if all other ingredients are organically certified?

J. Haymon
Jan 14, 2019

For a meal to be label as "organic" can it contain non organic spices/seasonings like salt, pepper, parsley, etc?

Cynthia Doisy
Jan 21, 2019

I would like to know how you qualify organic agriculture on a piece of property that may have been farmed commercially, i.e. w/ pesticides, previous to the establishment of the NOSB.

Lane Partin
Mar 14, 2019

We need to educate people about GMO's. I'm tired of seeing people buy a corn product just because it has "Non GMO" on the package. All corn has been genetically modified throughout the years of humanity. These advertisements are just simply not true.

Mar 25, 2019

Is palm leaf plates accepted under fda

May 06, 2019

potassium extracted from crop, could be considered as organic potash?

Dipankar Verma
May 07, 2019

In organic moringa powder, the followings herbicides came up in lab results:

Shall FDA & USDA are ok with the below:

Metribuzine - 0.044ppm
Monochrotophos -0.212 ppm
Quinalphos - 0.048 ppm

Client in USA has concern about it. Any help shall be beneficial for the moringa community. Thanks.

rohit vohra
May 30, 2019

potassium sorbate . can we use it in organic fruit and vegetable juices as preservative

Shwetha K.R
Jun 25, 2019

I would like to know is Dalda is allowed to use in organic processing??
Thank you

Ben Weaver
Jun 26, 2019

@Shwetha K.R - thank you for your comment. Hydrogenated oils are manufactured by chemically changing an oil using methods that are not permitted by the organic regulations. Some nonorganic ingredients are allowed in organic products (at maximum levels). Organic regulations do not currently include any exceptions for hydrogenated oils.

In general, synthetic substances are prohibited unless specifically allowed and non-synthetic substances are allowed unless specifically prohibited. For more information on exemptions, please see the National List of Approved and Prohibited Substances.

Jun 27, 2019

I need to know what anticorrosion steam line treatment chemicals are the best option for use in organic food production where the steam comes in direct contact with the product.

Darrell S
Jul 10, 2019

Can the water source from an underground well to grow organics supply one organic greenhouse also source water to other non-organic greenhouses?

Ben Weaver
Jul 11, 2019

@Darrell S - thank you for your comment. Every farm is different. USDA accredited certifiers are trained to help organic farmers ensure their organic system plans comply with the organic standards.