Are organic foods really better for you? How can you tell if the food you are buying is truly organic? This article endeavors to navigate through the confusing and often misleading world of food safety and labeling.
Advocates of organic food claim that it is more nutritious, delicious, and sustainable than food produced using pesticides. Opponents claim that conventionally raised crops are similar in nutritional value, yet more affordable to purchase and are more available to feed the masses. Many experts argue that there is little difference between organic and conventional, but the evidence indicates something different. Ultimately, it seems clear that food grown in more nutrient-rich soil, with natural fertilizers and no chemicals, is more nutritious, and less toxic to our bodies.
The Difference between Conventional and Organic
The term "organic" refers to the way farmers grow and process agricultural products, including grains, dairy products, fruits, vegetables, and meat. Organic farming practices were created to encourage conservation of water and soil, and reduce pollution.
Farmers who grow organically may implement sophisticated crop rotations and will spread mulch or manure to protect and nourish crops, rather than using chemicals and pesticides to control weeds and insects and to fertilize their fields.
Why Do People Say Organic Food Is “Better”?
Multiple factors affect the quality of food from farm to table.
Taste – Because the soil that organic food is grown in is fertilized naturally and farmed with other sustainable practices, there are often more nutrients in the soil which the plant can use. More minerals in the plant creates better tasting produce.
Pesticides - When farmers spray pesticides, this leaves chemical residues on produce. Buying organic food limits exposure to these residues.
Food additives - Organic regulations ban or severely restrict the use of food additives, substances used during processing, and fortifying agents that are commonly used in nonorganic foods, such as preservatives, artificial sweeteners, colorings, flavorings, and MSG.
Environment - Some people buy organic food for environmental reasons. Organic farming practices are designed to work in harmony with the environment by reducing pollution and conserving water and soil quality.
Nutritional Content – As a result of modern farming practices, our soils have been over farmed and depleted of nutrients. Nutrient-poor soil creates nutrient-poor produce. Many studies have been done which indicates that it takes sometimes dozens of units of modern food to equal the nutritional value of one unit from 50 years ago. (A good reason to add superfoods to your diet!) Organic food tends to be farmed in better soil so it is more nutrient-rich than its conventional counterparts.
Health Benefits of Eating Organic
A 2003 study in the Journal of Agricultural Food Chemistry found that organic foods are better for fighting cancer, but some of the most compelling evidence comes from a large 4-year $25-million European-Union funded study into organic food. The researchers in that study obtained their results after growing fruit and vegetables, as well as raising livestock, on adjacent organic and non-organic sites.
This study, called the ‘Quality Low Input Food (QLIF) project’1, found that organic food is significantly more nutritious than conventional produce, and does, in fact, support improved health and longevity. Among other things, researchers found:
• Organic fruit and vegetables contain up to 40 percent more antioxidants
• Organic produce has higher levels of important minerals such as iron and zinc
On October 21, 2002 the USDA's National Organic Program (NOP) took effect. This program regulates the standards for any farm, wild crop harvesting, or other processing operation that desires to sell an agricultural product labeled as organically produced. The labeling requirements of the NOP apply to both raw, fresh products as well as processed products that contain organic agricultural ingredients.
In order to qualify as “organic”, a product must be grown and processed using organic farming methods that recycle resources and promote biodiversity. Crops must be grown without bioengineered genes, synthetic pesticides, petroleum-based fertilizers, or sewage sludge-based fertilizers.
Organic products are not allowed to contain preservatives or flavor enhancing chemicals, cannot be irradiated, and cannot contain traces of heavy metals or other contaminants in excess of certain tolerances set by the FDA. Additionally, the pesticide residue level cannot be higher than 5 percent of the maximum EPA pesticide tolerance.
The seal itself is voluntary, but many organic producers use it because it gives consumers an easily recognizable way to identify something that qualifies as “organic”.
Packaged foods, which have more than one ingredient, can use the USDA organic seal plus the following wording, depending on the number of organic ingredients:
- 100 percent organic. Products must be either completely organic or made of all organic ingredients. Single-ingredient products that are completely organic, such as fruits, vegetables, or eggs can be labeled 100 percent organic and can carry the USDA seal.
- Organic. Products must be at least 95 percent organic.
- Made with organic ingredients. Products which 70-95 percent organic ingredients may say "made with organic ingredients" on the label, but may not use the USDA seal.
- Foods containing less than 70 percent organic ingredients cannot use either the seal or the word "organic" on their product labels; however, they can include the organic items in their ingredient list.
In order to ensure a fully organic product you need to look for items with a USDA 100 percent label.
Tips for Selecting Quality Produce
Keep these tips in mind to ensure you are getting the best quality produce that is available to you:
- Select a variety of foods from multiple sources. This will give you a better mix of nutrients and reduce your likelihood of exposure to any single pesticide.
- Buy fruits and vegetables in season when possible. Check your local farmers market for seasonal produce or at the supermarket, ask your grocer what day new produce arrives.
- Scrub fresh fruits and vegetables thoroughly under running water. Washing helps remove bacteria, dirt, and traces of chemicals from the surface of produce. Not all pesticide residues can be removed by washing, but it helps. You can also peel fruits and vegetables, but you will lose some fiber and nutrients. Even organic produce should be washed as it is often grown using manure as a fertilizer.
- Read food labels carefully. Just because a product says it's organic or contains organic ingredients doesn't necessarily mean it's a healthy choice. Some organic packaged products are very high in processed sugar, salt, fat and/or calories.
Select produce with the least concentration of pesticides and herbicides.
The Environmental Working Group (http://www.ewg.org/) produces the Shoppers' Guide to Pesticides in Produce. It is a list based on the results of nearly 43,000 pesticide tests of fruits and vegetables. If your budget doesn’t allow you to buy all organic, it’s important to check out this list and know which items are OK to avoid exposure to the largest concentration of pesticides.
Reduce your exposure as much as possible, but know that eating conventionally-grown produce is far better than not eating fruits and vegetables at all.
Beware that the above lists are for fruits and vegetables only. Meat that is not organic actually has far higher concentrations of pesticides than all of the fruits and vegetables. And overall, the highest concentration of pesticides is usually found in non-organic butter, so if there is one item you should definitely make sure you buy organic, it would be butter.
Watch Out For Genetically Modified Foods
The genetically modified products that you are likely to find in the produce section of a grocery store include some zucchini, most Hawaiian papaya, and some varieties of sweet corn.
Field corn (as opposed to sweet corn), is nearly all produced with genetically modified seeds, and is used to make corn chips, corn syrup, tortillas, animal feed, and biofuels. Soy is another heavily genetically modified crop that is often found in processed food.
Although the U.S. does not require GMOs to be labeled, you can still figure out whether or not the produce is genetically engineered by looking at its PLU (Price Look-Up) code.
- A conventionally grown product carries a 4-digit PLC code
(i.e. conventionally grown papaya - 5492).
- An organic product carries a 5-digit code, starting with the number 9
(i.e. organic papaya - 95492).
- A GMO product carries a 5-digit code, starting with the number 8
(i.e. GMO papaya - 85492).
The system has been compromised, however, and In Hawaii, non-GM papaya seed supplies are now so seriously contaminated by GM seeds that at least 50 percent of organic seeds test positive for genetic modification. This means you have a greater than 50/50 chance of buying a genetically modified fruit even when you choose to buy organic Hawaiian papaya!
What About the Word 'Natural' on a Product Label?
"Natural" and "organic" do not mean the same thing. Manufacturers often use the word ‘natural’ to cover up how unhealthy their product really is. The USDA uses natural for a large number of products packaged without preservatives, but which contain other harmful toxins. Don’t be fooled! If it does not say ‘organic” than the odds are it probably isn’t truly organic.
How To Look For Truly Organic Foods
There is actually no established testing procedure in place to ensure that foods labeled organic are free from synthetic chemicals. Although the organic label is still relatively new, some less ethical manufacturers have taken advantage of the system. Whereas organic foods were once truly raised naturally and with integrity, on small farms with more care, large manufacturers have distorted many of the principles upon which the organic labeling concept was founded. As an example, Wal-Mart, has now become the largest organic retailer in the United States. According to the Organic Consumers Association, Wal-Mart:
• Sells organic milk that comes from factory farm dairies
• Imports cheap organic foods and ingredients from China / Brazil
The organic food industry is big business: currently $16-billion in sales annually and growing by as much as 20 percent per year. Large manufacturers want to jump on the bandwagon and claim their share of the market. In order to protect yourself from unscrupulous marketing, take these extra steps to ensure you get what you are paying for.
- Search for the point of origin for organic food. Where was it grown? Produce grown locally has a greater chance of being organic.
- Examine the packaging of organic food to find state certification of organic ingredients. Some states have more strict regulations with regard to organic foods than the Food and Drug Administration (FDA).
- Scan the information supplied on product packaging to see if the supplying company is fully committed to the organic lifestyle. Packaging made from recycled cardboard with nontoxic printing materials is an indication that the company cares about you and the planet.
- Check the ingredients list and dietary information on mass-produced foods. Products that feature dyes and preservatives are not organic. Any long chemical name is probably not a good idea.
- Consult with the staff at your local store. Employees typically will know enough about the products on the shelves to tell you what you need to know.
- Read through statements by the suppliers of organic food as part of your research process. Some organic products feature a brief descriptive paragraph from the farmer which shares their philosophy. Compare their statements to the ingredient list to determine if the food is organic.
A big way that manufacturers deceive consumers is by using the term “organic” on packaged junk food products. Anything from potato chips to ice cream may be labeled “organic” which gives the consumer a perceived sense of health associated with the product, but be assured that organic or not, these foods are among the worst choices to support your health.
What About the Environment?
Supporting organic farming as much as possible is not only best for your health, but for the health of the whole planet. Aside from personal health concerns, the use of pesticides and herbicides in conventional farming practices contaminates groundwater, spoils the soil structure and promotes erosion. These practices have also been linked to the decline of pollinating honeybees around the world.
Organic farming standards are questionable in many parts of the world. Bear in mind that there are levels of farming that are above organic, such as biodynamic farming. For most people, locally-grown organics are your best and safest bet for quality produce. Wherever possible, grow your own!
 Quality Low Input Food Project, Carlo Leifert, http://www.qlif.org/research/sub2/wp3.html