Strolling down the aisles of your nearest grocery store, you’re faced with endless options.
Steak or chicken for dinner, Boston lettuce or romaine for a lunch salad, orange juice or apple juice for a breakfast beverage? Once you’ve made a few preferential decisions, the choices don’t stop there—now you have to decide whether you want to opt for organic or not.
At first glance, organic food make seem like a ploy to get consumers to pay more for the same product. And while organic options do tend to have a heftier price tag than the non-organic counterparts, there is a difference. A big one.
What the term “organic” means
One of the reasons that people may sometimes feel hesitant to pluck organic-labeled foods from store shelves is because the term itself has become muddled. The term “organic” actually refers to how farmers grow and process agricultural products like fruits, vegetables, meats, grains, and dairy products. At a baseline, their farming practices help with soil and water conservation and also reduce pollution—but in so doing, the final product also becomes healthier to consume.
For example, regular produce and meats come from farms that use chemical fertilizers to promote plant growth. Unfortunately, fertilizers can deplete the quality of the soil, contribute to global warming, and have a negative impact on our health. Organic products, on the other hand, come from farmers that do not use conventional methods to fertilize and control weeds in their pastures, or to prevent disease amongst livestock. Instead of fertilizer, organic farmers opt for natural choices to feed the soil and their plants, like manure or compost.
The only way to know for sure if a product is truly organic is to look for the presence of the United States Department of Agriculture certified label, which ensures that more than 95 percent of the ingredients used are organic and non-GMO, and that animal products contain no antibiotics or growth hormones. Simply seeing the printed words “natural” or “organic” on a label (without the USDA seal) requires a bit more research before you purchase since some manufacturers have taken advantage of the growing interest for organic and natural food options and have carelessly thrown those words on the packaging without actually following the guidelines.
On any compliant food product, you’ll see two different (and totally valid) USDA seals to indicate whether food is organic or not. The first will say “100% USDA Organic,” which is reserved for foods that are completely organic, while the second label of “USDA Organic” means that particular food contains no less than 95 percent organic ingredients. Beyond that, products that have less than 95 percent organic ingredients but at least 70 percent can state on the packaging that they’re “made with organic ingredients.”
Products featuring the USDA Organic seal are made with strict production and labeling requirements in mind. They’re produced without genetic engineering, ionizing radiation, or sewage sludge, and they’re only created using allowable substances. Additionally, the production process is overseen by a USDA National Organic Program-authorized agent who ensures everything is done according to regulation—check-ins happen on a regular basis to uphold these high standards.
Health benefits of organic food
Already, you can probably see the benefits to going organic, even if it only means that the process and production is under close scrutiny. However, opting for foods with the USDA organic label also offers hidden health benefits as well, making them good choices for the well-being of you and your family.
Pesticides are one of the biggest culprits of toxins, and belong nowhere near our foods. Why exactly do farmers use pesticides in the first place? Because they can prolong the shelf life of the finished product and/or lead to more plentiful crops. But the residue that the pesticides leave behind then gets transferred to the human body once consumed, and it can lead to some serious problems.
Exposure to pesticides can lead to a range of complications from acute poisonings that cause temporary or permanent nausea, abdominal cramps, diarrhea, dizziness, anxiety, and confusion, to more severe damage like respiratory issues, memory disorders, skin conditions, depression, miscarriage and birth defects, even cancer and neurological conditions like Parkinson’s disease.
Additionally, organic regulations are strict in regards to the use of food additives, processing aids, or fortifying agents—such as preservatives and artificial sweeteners, colors, and flavors. These items are intended to help process or prepare the food, keep it fresh, and overall make it more visually appealing. While a lot of additives are “generally recognized as safe (GRAS),” by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA), many still have not been tested thoroughly—if at all. And even then, some substances that have been shown to be harmful to people or animals are still allowed to be used.
To avoid complications from pesticides and additives—which are not yet entirely understood by the FDA anyway—organic food is the way to go. Farmers are held to high standards to produce the foods, and while the nutritional value often remains the same on either side of the debate, organic foods allow the natural flavors to really shine. Some studies have even shown that people prefer the taste of organic foods over non-organic options.
Environmental benefits of choosing organic food
Another big reason to choose organic foods is that it’s better for the environment. Organic farming practices are designed to actually promote the environment instead of contaminating the air with pollution or spraying pesticides near water sources.
Pesticides in particular contaminate not only soil, but water, turf, and other vegetation. They’re successful in killing insects and weeds, but they can also be toxic to other organisms like birds, fish, certain beneficial insects, and plants that were not the original intended target. That’s because the chemical doesn’t just target the produce it’s being sprayed on, and thanks to wind drift, up to 25 percent of the chemical can be redistributed. Additionally, pesticide use can trigger populations of beneficial soil microorganisms to decline, resulting in poorer soil quality over time.
Organic farming, on the other hand, keeps land in mind, aiming for sustainability over the long-term and not simply considering the next season’s bounty. Organic produce is made while establishing an ecological balance that naturally prevents soil infertility or pest issues. And aside from not having chemicals spreading into the world, this type of agriculture reduces non-renewable energy use by decreasing agrochemical needs that generally require high quantities of fossil fuels.
It’s an organic farmer’s job to promote biodiversity, paying attention to the soil and climate and adapting as needed. Farmers will frequently use under-utilized species to build soil fertility, which can reduce erosion and create a healthier gene pool. The lack of pesticides also attract new or re-colonizing species to the organic area—and not just produce! It can also bring in new or returning birds or other organisms like pollinators and pest predators.
When should you go organic?
The truth is that while organic foods lack the pesticides and additives that traditional offerings have, it almost always equates to a higher price tag because production costs are higher and harvesting is usually done in smaller batches. So if going 100 percent organic is not something you’re able to do right now for your family, you can still pick and choose certain options to get the best taste with the least amount of nasty chemicals. The analysts at the Environmental Working Group have gathered data and determined which of the most common conventionally grown (read: non-organic) foods contain the most amount of pesticides—also known as The Dirty Dozen. The list includes:
- Bell peppers
- Kale/collard greens
- Imported grapes
The group has also determined which conventional foods contain the fewest amount of pesticides. These include:
- Sweet corn
- Sweet peas
- Sweet potato
- Honeydew melon
So, if you need to mix up your choices of organic and regular food choices to stay on budget, always try to go organic with items in the first list. Non-organic items from the second list will still be subject to some pesticide exposure, but it will be at a lower risk.
Additionally, whether you go organic or not, here are a few food safety tips to ensure you always consume food in the healthiest way possible:
- Avoid cross-contamination: Keep your fresh veggies and fruits away from any uncooked meats or fish that may have germs and bacterial.
- Always wash your hands before preparing meals or handling produce.
- Choose fruits and vegetables that are ripe and avoid any foods that are bruised, moldy, or mushy to the touch.
- Purchase in-season produce. This will guarantee that you get the highest quality possible, especially if you also purchase it on the day it’s delivered to the store.
- Wash any and all pre-packaged produce, even if it states it’s been washed. This helps to reduce lingering dirt and bacteria. Rub the produce with your hands under cool water or scrub it with a vegetable brush.
- Wash any parts of the fruits and veggies you’re preparing, even if you don’t eat that particular part. Bacteria can live on rinds and stems, so even though they end up in the compost they can still transfer nasty agents to your food.