Organic food has become very popular. But navigating the maze of organic food labels, benefits, and claims can be confusing. Is organic food really healthier? Is it more nutritious? What do all the labels mean? Why is it so expensive? This guide can help you make better choices about which organic foods are healthier for you and better for the environment, and how you can afford to incorporate more organic food into your diet.
Making a commitment to healthy eating is a great start towards a healthier life. Beyond eating more fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and good fats, however, there is the question of food safety, nutrition, and sustainability. How foods are grown or raised can impact both your health and the environment. This brings up the questions: What is the difference between organic foods and conventionally grown foods? Is organic always best? What about locally grown foods?
The term organic refers to the way agricultural products are grown and processed. Specific requirements must be met and maintained in order for products to be labeled as "organic".
Organic crops must be grown in safe soil, have no modifications, and must remain separate from conventional products. Farmers are not allowed to use synthetic pesticides, bioengineered genes (GMOs), petroleum-based fertilizers, and sewage sludge-based fertilizers.
Genetically Modified Organisms (GMOs) are plants or animals whose DNA has been altered. These products have undergone only short-term testing to determine their effects on humans and the environment.
In most countries, organic products do not contain GMOs.
Organic livestock must have access to the outdoors and be given organic feed. They may not be given antibiotics, growth hormones, or any animal-by-products.
The evidence is unclear. Some studies suggest that, on average, organically grown fruits and vegetables may contain slightly higher levels of vitamin C, trace minerals, and antioxidant phytonutrients than conventionally grown produce. However, other studies have found no nutritional differences between organic and non-organic foods.
Organic foods provide a variety of benefits. Some studies show that organic foods have more beneficial nutrients, such as antioxidants, than their conventionally grown counterparts. In addition, people with allergies to foods, chemicals, or preservatives often find their symptoms lessen or go away when they eat only organic foods. In addition:
- Organic produce contains fewer pesticides. Pesticides are chemicals such as fungicides, herbicides, and insecticides. These chemicals are widely used in conventional agriculture and residues remain on (and in) the food we eat.
- Children and fetuses are most vulnerable to pesticide exposure due to their less-developed immune systems and because their bodies and brains are still developing. Exposure at an early age can cause developmental delays, behavioral disorders, and motor dysfunction.
- Pregnant women are more vulnerable due to the added stress pesticides put on their already taxed organs. Plus pesticides can be passed from mother to child in the womb, as well as through breast milk. Some exposures can cause delayed effects on the nervous system, even years after the initial exposure.
- Most of us have an accumulated build-up of pesticide exposure in our bodies due to numerous years of exposure. This chemical "body burden" as it is medically known could lead to health issues such as headaches, birth defects, and added strain on weakened immune systems.
- Organic food is often fresher. Fresh food tastes better. Organic food is usually fresher when eaten because it doesn't contain preservatives that make it last longer. Organic produce is often (but not always, so watch where it is from) produced on smaller farms near where it is sold.
- Organic farming is better for the environment. Organic farming practices reduce pollution (air, water, soil), conserve water, reduce soil erosion, increase soil fertility, and use less energy. In addition, organic farming is better for birds and small animals as chemical pesticides can make it harder for creatures to reproduce and can even kill them. Farming without pesticides is also better for the people who harvest our food.
- Organically raised animals are NOT given antibiotics, growth hormones, or fed animal byproducts. The use of antibiotics in conventional meat production helps create antibiotic-resistant strains of bacteria. This means that when someone gets sick from these strains they will be less responsive to antibiotic treatment. Not feeding animal byproducts to other animals reduces the risk of mad cow disease (BSE). In addition, the animals are given more space to move around and access to the outdoors, both of which help to keep the animals healthy. The more crowded the conditions, the more likely an animal is to get sick.
Organic farming refers to the agricultural production systems that are used to produce food and fiber. Organic farmers don't use synthetic pesticides or fertilizers. Instead, they rely on biological diversity in the field to naturally reduce habitat for pest organisms. Organic farmers also purposefully maintain and replenish the fertility of the soil. All kinds of agricultural products are produced organically, including produce, grains, meat, dairy, eggs, fibers such as cotton, flowers, and processed food products.
- Design and implementation of an "organic system plan" that describes the practices used in producing crops and livestock products.
- Detailed recordkeeping systems that track all products from the field to point of sale.
- Maintenance of buffer zones to prevent inadvertent contamination by synthetic farm chemicals from adjacent conventional fields.
|No Pesticides Used = Organic||Pesticides Used = Non Organic|
|Grown With Natural Fertilizers (Manure, Compost)||Grown With Synthetic Or Chemical Fertilizers|
|Weeds Are Controlled Naturally (Crop Rotation, Hand Weeding, Mulching, And Tilling)||Weeds Are Controlled With Chemical Herbicides|
|Insects Are Controlled Using Natural Methods (Birds, Good Insects, Traps)||Insecticides Are Used To Manage Pests And Disease|
What is local food? Unlike organic standards, there is no specific definition. Generally local food means food that was grown close to home. This could be in your own garden, your local community, your state, your region, or your country. During large portions of the year it is usually possible to find food grown very close to home at places such as a farmer's market.
- Financial benefits: Money stays within the community and strengthens the local economy. More money goes directly to the farmer, instead of to things like marketing and distribution.
- Transportation issues: In the U.S., for example, the average distance a meal travels from the farm to the dinner plate is over 1,500 miles. This uses a lot of fossil fuels and emits carbon dioxide into the air. In addition, produce must be picked while still unripe and then gassed to "ripen" it after transport. Or the food is highly processed in factories using preservatives, irradiation, and other means to keep it stable for transport and sale.
- Fresh produce: Local food is the freshest food you can purchase. Fruits and vegetables are harvested when they are ripe and thus full of flavor
Small local farmers often use organic methods but sometimes cannot afford to become certified organic. Visit a farmer's market and talk with the farmers. Find out how they produce the fruits and vegetables they sell. You can even ask for a farm tour.
|Cabbage||Peas (Sweet)||Corn (Sweet)||Sweet Potatoes||Eggplant||Tomatoes|
Rinsing reduces but does not eliminate pesticides. Peeling sometimes helps, but valuable nutrients often go down the drain with the skin. The best approach: eat a varied diet, wash all produce, and buy organic when possible.
Source: Environmental Working Group
Organic meat, dairy products, and eggs are produced from animals that are fed organic feed and allowed access to the outdoors. They must be kept in living conditions that accommodate the natural behavior of the animals. Ruminants must have access to pasture. Organic livestock and poultry may not be given antibiotics, hormones, or medications in the absence of illness; however, they may be vaccinated against disease. Parasiticide (a substance or agent used to destroy parasites) use is strictly regulated. Livestock diseases and parasites are controlled primarily through preventative measures such as rotational grazing, balanced diet, sanitary housing, and stress reduction.
- No Antibiotics, Hormones, Or Pesticides Are Given To Animals
- Livestock Are Given All Organic Feed
- Disease Is Prevented With Natural Methods Such As Clean Housing, Rotational Grazing, And A Healthy Diet
- Livestock Must Have Access To The Outdoors
- Antibiotics And Medications Are Used To Prevent Livestock Disease
- Conventionally Raised Meat And Dairy
- Typically Given Antibiotics, Hormones And Feed Grown With Pesticides
- Livestock Are Given Growth Hormones For Faster Growth
- Livestock May Or May Not Have Access To The Outdoors
It is helpful to understand what the U.S. government allows in feed or to be used in conventional production:
- Dairy Cows - antibiotics, pig & chicken byproducts, hormones (for growth), pesticides, sewage sludge
- Beef Cows - antibiotics, pig & chicken byproducts, steroids, hormones, pesticides, sewage sludge
- Pigs - antibiotics, animal byproducts, pesticides, sewage sludge, arsenic-based drugs (growth hormones are prohibited)
- Broiler Chickens - antibiotics, animal byproducts, pesticides, sewage sludge, arsenic-based drugs (growth hormones are prohibited)
- Egg Laying Hens - antibiotics, animal byproducts, pesticides, sewage sludge, arsenic-based drugs
Source: Meat, Dairy, And Eggs Buying Guide
What do the food labels such as organic, natural, free-range, and non GMO really mean? Understanding this terminology is essential when you're shopping for organic foods.
The most important point to remember is that natural does not equal organic. Natural is an unregulated term that can be applied by anyone, whereas organic certification means that set production standards have been met. These production standards vary from country to country in the U.S., for example, only the USDA Organic label indicates that a food is certified organic. Similar certification labels are also offered on organic products in other parts of the world, including the European Union, Canada, and Australia.
When you're shopping for organic foods in the U.S., look for the USDA Organic seal. Only foods that are 95 to 100 percent organic can use the USDA Organic label.
- Foods that are completely organic or made with 100% organic ingredients may display the USDA seal.
- Organic Foods that contain at least 95% organic ingredients may display the USDA seal.
- Made with organic ingredients Foods that contain at least 70% organic ingredients will not display the USDA seal but may list specific organic ingredients on the front of the package.
- Contains organic ingredients Foods that contain less than 70% organic ingredients will not display the USDA seal but may list specific organic ingredients on the information panel of the package.
The organic label is the most regulated term, but when it comes to meat, we often see many other terms used. In order to make informed choices, it is helpful to know what some of these terms mean, although their use can often vary from country to country.
- Natural In the U.S., this label means minimally processed and that the meat can't have any artificial colors, artificial flavors, preservatives, or any other artificial ingredients in it. Animals can still be given antibiotics or growth enhancers. For example, this term can be applied to all raw cuts of beef since they aren't processed.
- Grass Fed This term means that the animals are fed solely on a diet of grass or hay. These animals have access to the outdoors. Cattle are naturally ruminants that eat grass, so they tend to be healthier and leaner when fed this way. In addition, grass fed beef has been shown to have more of the healthy omega 3 fatty acids.
- Free Range Again the term free range means slightly different things in different parts of the world. Broadly, it means that the animals weren't confined to a cage and had access to the outdoors. Unfortunately, in the U.S. at least, the animal density can still be very high and the animals may have only short periods outside in an area that's quite small. Therefore, it is difficult to tell exactly what free range means when you see it on meat packaging in the U.S. You can contact the producer directly for clarification.
- No hormones Added In the U.S. and some other countries where the use of growth hormones is permitted, this term indicates that animals are raised without the use of any added growth hormones. For beef and dairy products it can be helpful, but by law, poultry and pigs cannot be given hormones, so don't pay extra for chicken or pork products that use this label.
Keep in mind that even if a producer is certified organic in the U.S., the use of the USDA Organic label is voluntary. At the same time, not everyone goes through the rigorous process of becoming certified, especially smaller farming operations. When shopping at a farmers market, for example, don't hesitate to ask the vendors how their food was grown.
Organic food is often more expensive than conventionally grown food. But if you set some priorities, it may be possible to purchase organic food and stay within your food budget. Purchase the organic versions of the foods you eat the most and those that are highest in pesticides if conventionally grown.
Venture beyond the grocery store. Consider the following ideas for finding organic food:
- Shop at farmers markets. Many cities, as well as small towns, host a weekly farmers market, where local farmers bring their wares to an open-air street market and sell fresh produce direct to you. Often you will find items for less than you'd pay in the grocery store or supermarket. Bonus: it's a great opportunity to socialize and get to know like-minded people in your neighborhood who might want to join a Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) farm or start a buying club with you.
- Join a food co-op. Find out whether there is a natural foods co-op, also called a cooperative grocery store, in your area. Co-ops typically offer lower prices to members, who pay an annual fee to belong. However, you do not need to be a member to shop at a food co-op.
- Join a Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) farm, in which individuals and families join up to purchase shares of produce in bulk, directly from a local farm. Local and organic!
- Buy in season Fruits and vegetables are cheapest and freshest when they are in season. You can also find out when produce is delivered to your market. That way you know you're buying the freshest food possible.
- Shop around Compare the price of organic items at the grocery store, the farmer's market and any other venue (even the freezer aisle!). Purchase the most economical ones.
- Remember that organic doesn't always equal healthy Junk food can just as easily be made using organic ingredients. Making junk food sound healthy is a common marketing ploy in the food industry but organic baked goods, desserts, and snacks are usually still very high in sugar, salt, fat, or calories.
Organic food is more labor intensive since the farmers do not use pesticides, chemical fertilizers, or drugs. Organic certification and maintaining this status is expensive. Organic feed for animals can cost twice as much. Organic farms tend to be smaller than conventional farms, which means fixed costs and overhead must be distributed across smaller produce volumes. Most organic farms are too small to receive government subsidies.
There is a lot of confusion surrounding the healthfulness of seafood. Fish is low in saturated fat and can be a good source of high-quality protein, omega-3 fatty acids, and other essential nutrients. Yet common toxins such as mercury are also found in fish. What does this mean? How much is okay? Which fish are safe?
Each year dangerous quantities of mercury are emitted into the air (an aspect of widespread industrial pollution). When it rains, this pollution goes into our lakes and oceans where it contaminates the fish and shellfish that live there. Seafood can contain harmful chemicals such as mercury, PCBs, chlordane, dioxins, and DDT. This is a problem because eating fish contaminated with mercury, a poison that interferes with the brain and nervous system, can cause serious health problems. The top predators, such as sharks, contain the highest levels of these contaminants. Nursing mothers, pregnant women, women who may become pregnant, and young children have the highest risk, so are advised to avoid all large fish (Shark, Swordfish, King Mackerel, Tilefish, etc.).
In recent years there has been a huge decline in many species of fish, caused by unsustainable fishing and farming practices. This means that if changes are not made soon, many wild populations of fish may become extinct.
Seafood can be part of a healthy diet if you know what type of fish to choose. There are a number of smartphone apps and downloadable wallet-cards for you to keep on hand to use in the grocery store or a restaurant. These guides are updated often and contain the latest information on healthful and sustainable seafood choices. Find links in the Resources section below.
- In the U.S.: Eat Well Guide or Local Harvest
- In the UK: Local Food Directory
- In Australia: Australian Farmers' Markets Directory
- In Canada: Farmers Markets Canada
Organic Foods: Are they safer? More nutritious? Information on the difference between organic and conventional foods. (MayoClinic.com)
Organic FAQs Get Educated a whole section on organics: What is Organic? Myths About Organic, 10 Reasons to Go Organic, and FAQs. (Organic.org)
The Truth about Organic Foods A guide on how to make the healthiest choices for your family. (Redbook)
Eating Food That's Better for You, Organic or Not Information on how organic doesn't mean it's better for you. (New York Times)
Certified Organic Label Guide Information on the significance and how to make sense of the USDA Organic label. (Organic.org)
USDA Organic: Behind the Label Information on how organic labeling works in the U.S. (Gaiam)
Organic Labeling and Marketing Information (PDF) Information on organic labeling in the U.S. (USDA, National Organic Program)
Study: Organic food not more nutritional a new study finds organic foods are not necessarily more nutritious. (CNN)
Organic or Not? Is organic produce healthier than conventional? Find out where to spend and where to save for your health. (EatingWell)
Does it pay to buy organic? For pregnant women and children, the benefits are worth the higher price. (Business Week)
Benefits of Organic Information on various topics related to the benefits of organics. (Organic Trade Association)
Food Miles (PDF) - How the distance your food travels can have serious consequences for your health. (NRDC)
What is local? How to buy and eat local food and why it matters. (Sustainable Table)
A Brief Guide to Meat and Dairy Labels and Their Relevance to Animal Welfare (The Humane Society of the United States)
Shopper's Guide to Pesticides (PDF) List of the produce with the highest and lowest pesticide levels. (Environmental Working Group)
Seasonal Food Guide Find out what produce is in season in your area of the U.S. and Canada. (Eat Well Guide)
Eat Well Guide Find local, organic, sustainable food from farms, markets, restaurants and more in the U.S. and Canada. (Eat Well Guide)
Local Harvest Find farmers markets, family farms, and other sources of sustainably grown food in your area of the U.S. (Local Harvest)
Local Food Directory (UK) Find local farmer's markets and farm shops in the UK. (LocalFoods.org.uk)
Australian Farmers Markets Directory Find local farmers markets in Australia. (AFMA)
Farmers Markets Canada Find farmers markets in your region of Canada. (Farmers Markets Canada)
NRDC Walletcard (PDF) This downloadable walletcard from The Natural Resource Defense Counsel lists the mercury levels in fish and offers recommendations for how often to eat those types of fish. (NRDC)
The Monterey Bay Aquarium Seafood Watch Pocket Guide These regional guides offer Best Choices for abundant, well managed seafood choices that are fished or farmed in environmentally friendly ways. Seafood to Avoid lists overfished and/or fished or farmed in ways that harm other marine life or the environment. (Monterey Bay Aquarium)
Monterey Bay Aquarium Seafood Watch App for Android and iPhone Provides free, up to date recommendations on your phone with detailed seafood information. (Monterey Bay Aquarium)
Organic Foods Information: Jon Barron 11/15/2010 - Organic VS Conventional
Organic Foods Information: Jon Barron 10/1/2012 - Organic Foods One More Time
Organic Foods Information: Jon Barron 4/30/2013 - Reaping The Benefits Of Organics
Organic Foods Information: Organic Foods And More
Organic Foods Information: A Guide To Organic Food And More