Far too often the word organic is misused and misunderstood. I think it’s most important to understand the reasons behind the difference staring back at you on the price tag, and then only you can decide for yourself whether it’s worth the financial, physiological, and environmental costs.
Organic standards prohibit the use of synthetic pesticides, herbicides, fungicides, fertilizers, antibiotics, growth hormones and genetically modified organisms. Additional organic requirements are set to support the environment, including soil improvements and prevention of soil erosion.
What does this mean for you as a consumer? Potentially a greater chance of a reduction in your exposure to harmful chemicals. As an environmentally-conscious consumer? Hopefully refraining from further contributing to soil erosion, energy use, and water pollution while contributing to biodiversity.
Side tantrum: Just because it’s organic does NOT mean it’s healthy. Organic jelly beans (my favorite) are packed with organic cane sugar, tapioca syrup, and full of fruit juice and natural flavors. Can I consume them obliviously thinking I’m fulfilling my quota of that “rainbow” of fruit and veggie servings for the day? Not exactly. Anything full of sugar (even organic sugar) is not a “healthy” food. I would say the importance of selecting organics is greatest for items in the perimeter of the grocery store (think produce, meats, dairy, eggs). Easy, right?
What’s With the Seal?
The USDAs National Organics Program ensures that companies have met the specific requirements (for crops, livestock or multi-ingredient foods) and are certified to use the seal. The organic seal verifies that the product has 95% of more certified organic content. Although companies aren’t forced to become certified (and some won’t due to rigorous process and financial reasons), those who use the seal that haven’t been certified by the USDA face an $11,000 fine for each violation. Farmers can still be “organic” without permission to use the seal, so be sure to ask smaller operations (particularly at farmers markets!)
- 100% Organic – That’s the truth. A product with this claim means that all ingredients (with the exception of salt and water) are certified organic. You will see the USDA seal on these products.
- Organic - All products that contain a minimum of 95% organic content will carry the USDA seal.
- Made with Organic Ingredients - Products that have 70-94% of content that is organic can have this claim, as well as three of the organic ingredients listed on the front of the package. You will not see the USDA seal on these items.
- Less than 70% Organic – These items will only be allowed to list organic ingredients in the ingredients list on the side of back of packages. They will not carry the USDA seal.
Is Organic Healthier?
Oh don’t I, and hundreds of researchers, wish we could give you a confident and clear-cut answer. Studies comparing nutritional differences in organic vs conventional produce are difficult to fund, perform and even more difficult to interpret. It’s true that some studies have shown lower levels of pesticides in the bodies of people who eat organic vs conventional foods. That’s good enough evidence for me personally.
If you are concerned about pesticide exposure, avoid the dirty dozen (and definitely rinse or peel dirty dozen items if you do buy them) (see image below):
Check out the Environmental Working Groups website for a printable wallet card that you can take shopping.
If you want to know which foods are typically lower in pesticide exposure, stick to the Clean 15 list:
Maximize the Produce Potential
Lastly, if you want to maximize the nutritional profile of whichever produce (conventional OR organic) you are selecting, I would suggest the following:
- Cook in a way that minimizes nutrient losses - Steam/sauté instead of boiling, make soups and consume all liquid (the point is to reduce water-soluble vitamin loss in cooking liquids that are discarded).
- Pair foods to enhance absorption - Consume a vitamin C rich food alongside iron-containing foods (sliced oranges on a spinach salad, or include a citrus glaze served over chicken). Combine a source of a healthy fat when you are eating foods which are high in fat-soluble vitamins (roasting a sweet potato in olive oil).
- Prepare foods just prior to eating – You want to minimize unnecessary exposure to air/light/and extreme temperatures prior to consuming foods, as all of these elements can degrade vitamin and mineral content.
- Buy local, fresh produce - Sign up for a CSA. Some of the benefits include receiving truly fresh food that’s chalk full of flavor and micronutrients nutrients, exposure to new and unfamiliar vegetables and therefore an expansion in the variety of your diet, encouragement to try new cooking methods, and most uniquely, the opportunity to build a relationship with and learn about the farm/farmer that you receive your treasures from.
Offering organics has opened up the opportunity for consumers to expressively support their values through purchasing decisions. For those that can’t afford organics, it would be beneficial to understand the ways of reducing one’s pesticide and chemical exposure, as well as sourcing local foods. Everyone should make an effort to eat a variety of foods, prepare them in a variety of ways, purchase local, fresh and organic when possible, and try to maximize the nutrients in the foods by the methods you select to prepare them.
Happy (hopefully organic) Eating!