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.
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.
Download Our Free Guide to Sustainable Living.
From reducing waste to recycling and upcycling, our e-book shows simple ways to make choices you can feel good about.