Organic foods: what you need to know

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Those little green and white USDA Organic labels have become a health industry fashion trend. Some of your favorite stores wouldn’t be caught dead without it. 

Move over conventional products and make way for this season’s top organic consumer picks. 

But before you shell out an extra five dollars for organic peanut butter so you can join the hip and “healthy”, it’s important to ask: is organic really better? 

What does organic mean exactly?

Organic farming refers to the way the farmers grow produce and raise meat. The overall intention of organic farming is to improve soil quality, reduce pollution, provide healthy livestock habitats, and promote a self-sustaining cycle of farm resources (1). 

According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), to obtain the official organic seal of approval, the final product must follow strict production, handling, and label standards (2).

No-Gos for organic farming:

  • Synthetic fertilizers 
  • Sewage sludge as fertilizer
  • Most synthetic pesticides 
  • Irradiation 
  • Genetic engineering 

Organic livestock live by’s:

  • No antibiotics or growth hormones 
  • Healthy living conditions and access to outdoors
  • At least 30% pasture feeding  
  • Organic foods for animals 

How do I know if something is organic?

The USDA labeling guidelines are based on how much of the product is organic. Any product labeled as organic must be organic certified. 

  • 100% Organic: typically used for single ingredient foods (milk, eggs, fruits, vegetables). Can be used for multi-ingredient foods as long as all ingredients are certified organic, excluding salt and water.
  • Organic: the product and ingredients must be certified organic except when specified on the National List of Allowed and Prohibited Substances. No more than five percent of the combined total ingredients may contain non-organic content.
  • Made with organic ingredients: at least 70% of the product must be certified organic ingredients.
  • Specific organic ingredients: multi-ingredient products with less than 70% certified organic ingredients. These don’t need to be certified.

Is organic food really better for the environment?

Organic farming has the aim to reduce pollution, conserve water, increase soil usage, and use less energy overall. Farming without pesticides is better for animals that live within close proximity of farms. Organically-raised animals are given more space to move around and access the outdoors. 

But when it comes to the overall environmental impact, organic farming hasn’t been proven to be more green than conventional farms. 

Organic farming practices can benefit the local environment on the small scale. Since organic farms produce about 80% less (and in some cases as low as 50%) food per unit of land than conventional ones, this calls for more resources (3).

Is organic food better for you?

There’s increasing amounts of research showing potential health benefits of organic foods when compared to conventionally grown foods. More research needs to be conducted in order to make firm health conclusions and recommendations. (1).

Some suggested benefits include:

More nutrients

Some organic produce foods have been suggested to have more antioxidants such as vitamin C (4). However, studies suggest that these are small differences and are most likely related to variances in production methods. 

When it comes to animal products, omega-3 fatty acids have been shown to be higher in organic meats, dairy, and eggs. 

One study found that organic milk and meat contain about 50% more omega-3 than conventionally produced products. This is partially due to the appropriate feed provided, such as grass for beef (5).

Less toxins

Cadmium is a toxic element that can have harmful effects on the body. Organic grains may have less cadmium due to the lack of synthetic fertilizers in organic farming (6). 

When compared to conventional produce, organic foods have less pesticide residue. Research has reported adverse effects of certain pesticides on children’s cognitive development at certain levels of exposure. But specific pesticides and their effects on humans has not yet been well researched (7). 

Is organic food worth the cost?

According to Harvard Health, there’s no lack of demand for organic foods. Sales reached $35.9 billion in 2014 (8)! 

If you do want to go organic, you’ll most likely be paying as much as 10% to 50% more than conventional counterparts.

Here are ways to keep the cost of organic food within your budget:

Make friends with your farmer

Your local farmer’s market may be selling foods that are technically organic, but due to the steep price tag of the organic certification, they won’t become official.

You may see them post a self-made sign, indicating that they’re organic. Ask questions about what kind of farm they have and how they grow their produce or raise their livestock.

Focus on the clean fifteen 

The Environmental Working Group (EWG) creates an annual guide to pesticides in produce. This is a helpful way to know which foods are better to buy organic. 

Clean fifteen (least amount of pesticides): 

Avocados, sweet corn, pineapples, onions, papaya, sweet peas (frozen), eggplants, asparagus, cauliflower, cantaloupe, broccoli, mushrooms, cabbages, honeydew melons, and kiwi fruit. 

Dirty dozen (highest amount of pesticides):

Strawberries, spinach, kale, nectarines, apples, grapes, peaches, cherries, pears, tomatoes, celery, potatoes, hot peppers (9) 

To save even more, give frozen, dried, or canned produce a try.

Avoid marketing manipulation 

Research shows that labels will often convince the buyer to ignore the real facts (nutrition facts) and regard the product as healthy when labeled that way (10). 

Just because those chocolate chip cookies are labeled organic, doesn’t mean that you’re good for you.

Check the label and gravitate towards the foods that are more natural, with less ingredients (the ones you can pronounce), and less sugar.

Diversity is key

The research is not conclusive whether or not eating organic has a significant benefit. You may feel better knowing that you’re not taking in as many pesticides. Or maybe you don’t have the funds to buy organic. 

Regardless of whether you decide to go the organic route or not, one of the best things you can do is diversify your diet. This will limit your exposure to any one pesticide and provide your body with a balance of nutrients for overall health and wellbeing.

A personalized diet that promotes a balance of foods and helps you create healthier eating habits in the long term is your key to preventing disease.

References

1. MayoClinic. 2020. Organic foods: Are they safer? More nutritious? Mayoclinic.org Nutrition and Healthy Eating Blog. 8, April.  https://www.mayoclinic.org/healthy-lifestyle/nutrition-and-healthy-eating/in-depth/organic-food/art-20043880 (Accessed 2020-22-4).

2. United States Department of Agriculture. 2017. Understanding the USDA Organic Label. USDA.gov blog. 21, February. https://www.usda.gov/media/blog/2016/07/22/understanding-usda-organic-label (Accessed 2020-22-4).

3. Maeder, Paul, et al. Soil Fertility and Biodiversity in Organic Farming. Science. Vol. 296, Issue 5573, 2002: 1694-1697. https://science.sciencemag.org/content/296/5573/1694 (Accessed 2020-22-4).

4. Crinnion, WJ. Organic foods contain higher levels of certain nutrients, lower levels of pesticides, and may provide health benefits for the consumer. Altern Med Rev.2010 Vol 15, Issue 1, 2010: 4-12. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/20359265. (Accessed 2020-22-4).

5. Science Daily. 2016. New study finds clear differences between organic and non-organic milk and meat. ScienceDaily.com. 15, February. https://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2016/02/160215210707.htm (Accessed 2020-22-4).

6. Krajcovicová-Kudládková M1, Ursínyová M, Masánová V, Béderová A, Valachovicová M. Cadmium blood concentrations in relation to nutrition. Cent Eur J Public Health.Vol. 14, Issue 3, 2006: 126-9. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/17152224 (Accessed 2020-22-4).

7. Axel Mie, et al. Human health implications of organic food and organic agriculture: a comprehensive review. Environ Health. Vol. 16, 2017: 111. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5658984/ (Accessed 2020-22-4).

8. Harvard Health. Should you go organic? Health.harvard.edu. 2015, September. https://www.health.harvard.edu/staying-healthy/should-you-go-organic (Accessed 2010-22-4).

9. Environmental Working Group. EWG’s 2020 Shopper’s Guide to Pesticides in Produce. EWG.org. 2020. https://www.ewg.org/foodnews/dirty-dozen.php (Accessed 2020-22-4).

10. Verrill, Linda PhD., Dallas Wood, PhD. Sheryl Cates. Amy Lando, MPP. Yuanting Zhang, PhD. Vitamin-Fortified Snack Food May Lead Consumers to Make Poor Dietary Decisions. Journal of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. Volume 117, Issue 3, 2017: 376-385. https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/abs/pii/S2212267216312151. (Accessed 2020-22-4).

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