Happy Earth Day! In honor of our precious Earth, let’s discuss organic foods. Organics is a $43 billion industry and growing every year. You may have noticed. You no longer have to go to specialty stores to find organic products because more and more mainstream grocery store chains are selling organic foods–with hefty price tags. While wandering through the grocery store, I frequently wonder whether organic food is worth the extra cost. As a result, I often buy some organic items, but not always. Maybe you too have wondered about organic, so here’s the low-down, including my tips for how to handle buying organic food.
What does organic mean?
- Organic farming, by definition, may not use synthetic fertilizers, sewage sludge, irradiation, and genetic engineering (GMOs).
- Animals raised for meat and dairy consumption must be raised in a natural environment with access to outdoors, must not receive hormones or antibiotics, and must be fed 100% organic feed.
- If a food is labeled as “USDA organic,” the farm is required to follow strict regulations, it must be accredited, and there is a costly fee associated with the certification. However, this system is far from perfect and once a farm is certified, there is little to no monitoring to ensure organic practices continue over time.
- Processed foods containing all organic ingredients may be labeled “100% organic.”
- Processed foods containing 95% organic ingredients may be labeled “organic.”
- Processed foods containing 70% organic ingredients may be labeled “made with organic ingredients.”
Is organic food better for the environment?
Yes. Organic farming is better for the environment and better for the treatment of animals for meat and dairy consumption. Organic farming leads to long-term sustainability, greater biodiversity and better soil. According to the US Department of Agriculture, the methods used in organic farming “must integrate cultural, biological, and mechanical practices that foster cycling of resources, promote ecological balance, and conserve biodiversity.” These methods make it cost more to produce foods organically, but the environment may get what we pay for in the long run.
Is organic safer?
It seems so, but more evidence is needed. Studies have shown that organic produce can contain four to five times more pesticide residues than conventional produce. And some studies have linked pesticide exposure to health conditions like Parkinson’s, cancer and birth defects, although these associations don’t prove pesticides cause these diseases. However, tests on conventional produce have shown it contains levels well within the legal limits set by the USDA. So, the question remains, are the pesticide levels in conventional foods enough to cause health problems? No one knows. But it has been suggested the chemicals build up–in soil, in water, and in our bodies. If this is true, it could explain why some research suggests that those who work with pesticides may be at greater risk. So, the safest bet seems to be to reduce exposure to as many pesticides as possible. Eating organic foods as often as possible may help. But then again, are the non-synthetic “natural” pesticides used on organic food any better? And there’s the possibility organic foods can carry higher levels of potentially harmful bacteria.Unless you know where you food is coming from (which most likely means buying locally or growing your own), you may not be getting the “pesticide-free” organic food for which you think you are paying.
Of course, you may be choosing organic foods to avoid GMOs (genetically modified organisms) for fear they are unsafe. It does seem unnatural to be tinkering with nature, I’ll give you that. However, there is no conclusive evidence that GMOs are unsafe. According to the World Health Organization, “[Genetically modified] foods currently available on the international market have passed safety assessments and are not likely to present risks for human health. In addition, no effects on human health have been shown as a result of the consumption of such foods by the general population in the countries where they have been approved.” That said, science can’t prove absolutely there is no risk. So in my cautious opinion, it is smart to avoid processed foods for many reasons, only one of which is that they usually contain some type of GMO, usually in the form of corn or soy.
Is organic food more nutritious?
We are not sure yet. Research does not support that organic food is more nutritious than conventional food. Some studies have shown certain organic foods contain more nutrients than the conventional counterparts. For example, some studies have shown organic milk and beef appear to have more favorable fatty acid profiles than their conventional counterparts, and other studies have shown certain fruits or vegetables have more antioxidants than their conventional counterparts. But the data is limited and far from conclusive, so more research is needed. But it is also very difficult to determine whether observed nutrient differences have been due to other factors, such as genetic varieties of the produce, soil, ripeness at harvest time, or even the weather. For now, it appears nutrient profile is not a compelling reason to choose organic foods.
My Organic Tips:
The bottom line: only you can decide whether organic food is worth the extra cost. You are helping the environment and likely reducing your risk of exposure to chemicals, but most likely not getting significantly more nutritious foods than when you eat conventional ones. Consider these general tips for buying organic foods.
- Buy organic whenever you can if your means allow–but don’t avoid conventional produce if you can’t afford to buy organic. Check out the Environmental Working Group’s “Dirty Dozen” and “Clean Fifteen” fruit and vegetable lists for guidance. Buying organic as often as you can potentially limits your lifetime exposure to pesticides and fertilizers, and fewer chemicals can’t be bad, for your body and the environment. But if you can’t afford to buy organic produce at all or even sometimes, don’t avoid conventional produce. Eating plenty of fruits and vegetables far outweighs the risks of pesticides and fertilizers, and there are legal limits as to the amount of pesticides and fertilizers conventional foods may contain in order to keep the food supply safe.
- Buy local whenever you can. Some local farms employ “near organic” standards, but fall short of the expensive certification process. So, in practice, these farms may be providing produce, eggs, meat and dairy products that are just as good as organic, but without the certification. And perhaps at a more reasonable cost and with more accountability, since they are your neighbors. Ask about their standards. For example, one of my favorite local farms is The Neighborhood Harvest in Suffolk, VA. They are growing pesticide free, GMO-free greens and microgreens hydroponically and delivering them straight to your door every week! The greens are cut the day before they are delivered and their freshness is unreal…on the few occasions I haven’t used them quickly, they have lasted up to 10 days. You won’t find that quality and freshness in the grocery store, and I’m supporting my community. And you don’t have to wash them, so they are super convenient. And it’s bonus that your standing order ensures you eat your greens each day. Try them if you live in Hampton Roads (I’m not paid to say this!)
- Always wash your produce thoroughly with water before eating–organic or not–and even when the skin is not edible. Bacteria, fertilizers or pesticides on the skin can be spread to edible parts during cutting and preparation.
- Don’t be fooled by the word “natural” on food product labels. A “natural” product is not necessarily as good as “organic,” nor is it necessarily better than a conventional product. This is because “natural” has no definition according to the FDA, except in the case of meat products, for which “natural” means the meats do not have “added color, artificial flavors or synthetic ingredients.” Therefore, “natural” meats are not held to the same standards of “organic” meats. These meat products and many other food products may use the term “natural” misleadingly; you may be wasting your money if these products cost more than other conventional options.
- Don’t be fooled into paying more for conventional pork or chicken when labels says “no hormones administered.” Of course, hormones are naturally present in all meat. But hormones are not allowed to be administered in any pork or chicken, so the meat manufacturer took no extra measures with these non-organic meats and it is misleading. Buyer beware of spending extra money on these products that are not any better than cheaper conventional products.
- Don’t be fooled by “cage-free” or “free-roaming” on egg labels. This doesn’t guarantee the birds had access to outdoors, if that is important to you. “Free-range” is a better bet, since this means the birds are required to have access to outdoors for half their lives, but that said, it’s not monitored. Organic or local eggs where you know the producer’s standards meet your expectations are the best bet.
- Organic processed foods are still processed foods. Limit them and choose more whole, real foods (organic or not) whenever possible.
Environmental Working Group “Dirty Dozen” and “Clean Fifteen” Lists
Food and Drug Administration Basic Questions
Organic Trade Association
Baranski M et al. Higher antioxidant concentrations and less cadmium and pesticide residues in organically-grown crops: a systematic literature review and meta-analyses. Br J of Nutr. 2014;Sept 14;112(5):794-811.
Freire C et al. Pesticide exposure and Parkinson’s disease: an epidemiological evidence of association. Neurotoxicology. 2012 Oct;33(5):947-71.
Smith-Spangler C. et al. Are Organic Foods Safer or Healthier Than Conventional Alternatives?: A Systematic Review. Ann Intern Med. 2012;157(5):348-366.
US Department of Agriculture Organic Agriculture
Genetically Engineered Crops: Experiences and Prospects. National Academies Press. Published 2016. Accessed April 22, 2017.