Organic foods have gained tremendous popularity over the past decade. We hear about how conventionally grown foods may affect our health negatively, especially over time. We also hear about a range of components in non-organic foods that we would never consciously put into our bodies.
But, what does it mean when foods say they are organic? Does it make them more “natural”? Do they have more nutrients? Are they really worth the extra money on the price tag? In this article, we begin to answer some of these questions.
What does it mean when food is organic?
According to the USDA National Organic Program, “Organic food is produced by farmers who emphasize the use of renewable resources and the conservation of soil and water to enhance environmental quality for future generations.”
There are hundreds of pages in handbooks, reference guides, regulations and laws that make up the characteristics that organic food must have in order to meet national standards. However, to save you some time, we have summarized some of the main characteristics are as follows:
- Organic meat, poultry, eggs, and dairy products come from animals that are given no antibiotics or growth hormones.
- Organic food is produced without using most conventional pesticides;
- Organic food is nor produced with fertilizers made with synthetic ingredients or sewage sludge
- Organic foods don’t use GMO (genetically modified organism) seeds, GMO ingredients, or, in the case of meats, have GMO feed.
- Organic foods are not disinfected with ionizing radiation.
What are the advantages of choosing organic foods?
There is no easy answer to this question. Some professionals question how in the world eating foods that use chemical pesticides (that are made to kill insects) can be good for us. Representatives of the American Dietetic Association, however, point out the fact that there is no strong evidence that organic foods are superior to food conventionally grown and produced.
One thing that is sure is how some non-organic farming practices may lead to soil depletion and even predatory production practices against small farmers.
Ultimately, the USDA doesn’t claim that organic farming is safer, healthier, or more nutritious than conventional foods. Other countries, nonetheless, have much stricter standards regarding what sort of foods hit the supermarket. The European market, for example, has very strict regulations regarding how GMOs are labeled and within their jurisdiction.
Are there any disadvantages to choosing organic foods?
The main disadvantage is regarding the cost of organic foods versus conventionally grown foods. Now that there is a higher demand for organic food, prices also rise. The UNs Food and Agriculture Organization points out some additional reasons organic food is more expensive than the alternative:
- Production costs for organic foods are typically higher because they tends to be more labor intensive for a lower production volume
- Organic food must be segregated from conventional food, so handling can be more expensive.
- Marketing and the distribution chain for organic products is relatively inefficient
- Higher standards for, and this greater investment in, animal welfare, health risk avoidance, environmental enhancement and rural development.
How do we know foods are really organic?
If you live in the US, all foods and products that claim to be organic should have the USDA organic label on the package. This means that they have gone through due process and a range of tests and inspections involved in proper certification.
Note that language matters when it comes to what the package or labels says regarding the product’s organic origins. The USDA has identified three categories of organic foods:
- “100% Organic”: Made with only organic ingredients
- “Organic”: Made with 95% organic ingredients
- “Made with organic ingredients”: Has a minimum of 70% organic ingredients, and the other 30% has strict restrictions regarding its origins.
Products that have less than 70% organic ingredients may list them in the ingredients but aren’t able to have any claims like those above on the package.
There are other organic certification agencies as well, and jurisdiction and validity depends on the geographic origins of the food.
So, what’s the verdict?
If you care about how your purchases affect the environment, and are worried about the possible effects of GMOs and chemical pesticides and fertilizers on your health, going organic may be the best choice for you. It is important to note that there is usually an extra cost involved in choosing organic foods as well, so it is important to take that into account when making your budget.
There is still so much we don’t know about how food and its components affect our body, including those components that are synthetically added. For the best information on the topic, stay up to date on impartial research regarding organic food from official national agencies and medical and nutritional journals.