What Does 'Organic' Mean Anyway? - Public Goods

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What Does ‘Organic’ Mean Anyway?

As the mom of two growing boys whose health and well-being is always in the forefront of my mind, buying organic seems like a no-brainer.

grapefruit, orange, leaf, nuts, flowers, cinnamon sticks

Most health-conscious people aim to purchase organic products whenever their budget allows it.

And yet, for many of us, our reasons aren’t very clearly defined. Do we actually know what it means for a food to be organic, and what the benefits of organic foods are?

How Can You Tell If A Food Is Organic?

Simply put, “organic” means that a food is grown with minimal use of pesticides, fertilizers, additives and other non-organic agents.

The USDA is the organization that regulates organic products. Unless a product has a USDA label on it, there is no way to guarantee it is organic. Each product labeled organic by the USDA must be verified by an accredited certifying agent. Violations of the USDA labeling rules can rack up penalties of $11,000!

So what do these labels mean exactly? According to the USDA, for a product to receive the “USDA Organic” or “Certified Organic” seal, it must not contain pesticides, GMOs and fertilizers, and must be produced without the use of ionizing radiation and sewage sludge. Animal products that are organic must be free from antibiotics and growth hormones.

Are Organic Foods Nutritionally Superior?

Now that you have a better idea about what “organic” means, you might be curious about the benefits of eating organic. Interestingly, while there seems to be some nutritional benefits to eating organic foods, the research is mixed, with experts disagreeing about how substantial these benefits are.

Let’s start with the not-so-good news. A comprehensive meta-analysis from Stanford University in 2012 found few discernible nutritional differences between organic and non-organic produce.

“Some believe organic food is always healthier and more nutritious,” said Crystal Smith-Spangler, one of the researchers on the team. “We were a little surprised we didn’t find that.”

However, a 2016 meta-analysis published in the British Journal of Nutrition found that there may be nutritional benefits to organic foods — at least in terms of some key nutrients. For example, organic dairy and meat products contain about 50% more omega-3 fatty acids than their non-organic counterparts (Commonly found in fish, eggs, and nuts, omega-3 fatty acids are considered a “healthy fat,” and are known to protect against heart disease and arthritis, aid in fetal development, and prevent dementia).

Another large meta-analysis, also published in the British Journal of Nutrition, concluded that organic produce — carrots, broccoli, apples and blueberries in particular — have higher concentrations of antioxidants, substances that protect your cells against damage, thereby lowering your risk of heart disease and cancer. Additionally, a 2008 study from the University of California, Davis, determined that organic tomatoes were rich in a quercetin, which is known to decrease inflammation in the body and protect against disease.

What Are The Health Benefits Of Organic Foods?

For many of us, it’s not about what additional benefits organic foods confer, but what unhealthy substances they are free from. So the question becomes “What does eating organic mean in terms of long and short-term health and longevity?”

Researchers seem to have only scratched the surface of this topic, but there is some consensus that substances found in non-organic items may be unsafe to consume in large amounts.

For instance, one of the key elements that USDA-labeled organic foods prohibit are pesticides. Several studies have linked the herbicide, Roundup — found in foods such as oats and breakfast cereals — with cancer. An insecticide called chlorpyrifos has been found to interfere with the brain development of babies and young children. Exposure to pesticides has been linked to ADHD and reduced sperm counts as well.

Are Organic Foods Better For The Environment?

Besides the impact organic foods can have on your overall health, eating organic may also mean doing your part to protect the planet. Organic foods have to be farmed according to agricultural standards issued by the USDA, which states that USDA-certified organic producers “must demonstrate that they are protecting natural resources, conserving biodiversity, and using only approved crop, livestock and processing inputs.”

So do these practices amount to any detectable environmental protections? According to writer Tamar Haspel, in a piece for The Washington Post, when it comes to the benefits of organic farming regulations, there are no clear answers. The topic is more nuanced and complex than you might imagine.

Nevertheless, Haspel said researchers have found certain environmental benefits to organic farming practices, including more fertile soil, conservation of energy sources, less use of pesticides and an ability to lock away more carbon in soil (this keeps carbon out of the environment, reducing its contribution to climate change). On the other hand, she explained, conventional farming operations (i.e., non-organic farms) tend to have higher overall yields. They are also better at reducing erosion. Because organic farmers can’t rely on herbicides to kill unwanted weeds, they must till their soil, which leads to erosion.

Is It Worth the Money to Buy Organic?

At this point you likely have a clearer sense of what organic means and what its potential benefits are…and you might be left wondering if it’s worth it to buy organic. In most cases, organic products are pricier than non-organic products, and many of us are looking for ways to cut corners in our already stretched budgets.

It’s good to remember that buying organic isn’t “all or nothing.” Although the evidence isn’t a 100% slam-dunk when it comes to the benefits of organic products, there are many substantial reasons to include as many organic products in your grocery cart as possible.

I like to use to the “Dirty Dozen” list put out by the Environmental Working Group [EWG] as a guide. Each year, EWG compiles the top 12 most pesticide-laden fruits and vegetables, and I figure if I can at least steer clear of those, I will be doing some good for myself and my family. After that, I try to load up my cart with as many organic products as I can afford.

In the end, we all need to figure out what works best for us when it comes to buying organic. As for me, now that I have learned more about what organic means and its benefits, I’m enthusiastically “going organic” whenever possible.

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Comments (4)

  • This article excludes big issues with non-organic food, and the dangers of eating and supporting non-organic food production. I have been in the organic industry much of my adult life and the person who wrote the article is not an expert.
    Anyone following organics can tell you what I bring to you below.
    Over 70% of non-organic soybeans, corn and wheat are genetically modified, as a matter of pure fact, and, it is not required to be labelled as such, by the FDA. GMO food is not a development of modern agriculture, which encourages genes in plants from generation to generation. GMO gene splicing has not been tested on the general public. It is rougue, and requires the use of glyphosate-ridden chemicals and pesticides for which already Monsanto is losing court battles, due to the very real cancer risk. There will continue to be law suits. See the at the Organic Consumer site here: https://www.organicconsumers.org/
    Also, standards of organic foods has been decaying for decades due to pressure from Big Ag. Non-organic foods and even some organic foods such as berries, are not required to be growing in the actual the soil, but rather in pots above plastic. This means that there is a very real cost to large portions of our agricultural land not being cared for, not amended, not allowed to lie fallow to rejunivate the nutrients that soil is supposed to have and deliver to growing plants. Our ability to continue to produce food with the nutrients we need continues to diminish, seen from studies that have shown that nutrients in the food were higher in the early 1900’s – before the rise of chemical-laden intensive monocroping such as what we have now, predominantly.
    Because the FDA has not upheld the true values of organic foods as it was intended, there is now an active movement of farmers and consumers using another word and set of standards to denote the principles used to grow a set of food to the upmost standards of care to plant, soil, animal, and consumer. It is called Regenerative. “Regenerative agriculture is a conservation and rehabilitation approach to food and farming systems. It focuses on topsoil regeneration, increasing biodiversity, improving the water cycle, enhancing ecosystem services, supporting biosequestration, increasing resilience to climate change, and strengthening the health and vitality of farm soil. Practices include, recycling as much farm waste as possible, and adding composted material from sources outside the farm. “Regenerative agriculture” will attract those committed to the true values of organics in the years to come. So if you are luke warm about organics now, you’re going to lose ground in the “organic market” if you don’t learn about where that market share is headed.
    There is also the issue of food security. Non-organic grow operations are specifically mono-cropped. If there is an infestation, the whole year’s crop can be affected. Mono-cropping is vulnerable to natural fluctuations of weather and insect populations. The other issue of food security is that the vast majority of seeds that produce our world’s food supply, is now in the hands of a very few number of corporations. Previously, food is available if you gather the seed each year and plant it or store it. The big seed companies sell seed which does not produce plants that then produce its own seed. This is an unnatural departure from the cycle of life. This seed needs chemicals to grow, and the farmer becomes dependent on both the chemical such as (Round-up ready seed) and the seed for next year’s harvest. This is an unnatural monopoly.
    I’m disappointed that your writer has not appreciated the depths of this issue and can not reflect what’s at stake when she casually talks about organic vs. non-organic foods. This is not a luke warm issue to be given to uncommitted people.
    If you are committed to the organic market, please start sounding like one. Seattle’s PCC Community Markets (and their 10 stores in Seattle giving Whole Foods a true run for their money) and their newsletter, is the best I’ve found for addressing the real issues with organics, our health, our food safety and security, and the well being of our farmers, our land, and our environment.

  • Short answer: No, it isn’t worth it to buy organic produce.

    Medium answer: It is worth it to buy sustainable produce. This includes more local and in season food, and more conventional producers should be encouraged or required to use sustainable practices. Go vote, and talk to local farmers about what they’re doing to take care of their land.

    Long answer: Organic is not better and does not mean no pesticides. It means only certain types. The EWG list is a huge misdirection. The items they list have trace amounts of non-organic pesticides, which won’t even begin to negatively impact your body at levels that humans can consume as required by US law. Organic produce is just as likely to have pesticide resides, but they’ll be organic pesticides instead of conventional. Many organic pesticides aren’t as effective as their conventional analogs either, which means organic growers might have to use more pesticides to get any produce out. This negatively impacts the environment, as does the reduced yield of organic vs conventional growing. Farming practices that actually matter: conservation “reservation” (can’t remember the exact term, but leaving parts of the field for pollinators and local wildlife), companion planting (not planting a single dumb monoculture), crop rotation (putting a heavy feeder like corn in one year, followed by a heavy fixer like soybean), watershed management (putting in habitats that will minimize pesticide and herbicide runoff), conservation tilling (minimizing or eliminating ripping up earth that leads to erosion), cover crops (planting crops over the winter or non growing season that protect and feed the soil), et cetera.

    • So glad someone spoke up on this. Kat, everything you said is right on point I think. The only thing I would add is that, as a geneticist, I can state that not all GMOs are evil, they’re simply a tool. They need clearer regulation in terms of what modifications are acceptable, but if used properly they can help both the environment and a lot of peoples lives.

  • The better question is, “Public Goods, what does All Natural mean and when are you going to stop using it as a description for your products?”. Because It’s clear your subscribers understand organic better than the person who wrote this does.

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