Do they really make a difference?
When you’re in the grocery store, you’ve probably noticed that there are sections that are designated as organic food. Often, the food doesn’t look any different from the non-organic version despite typically being more expensive. So, what is the difference between the two? Is organic food really worth the extra cost?
If you’re like most people, you probably have noticed that there are many products that have the words “organic” on them. According to the Organic Trade Association, from 2013 to 2018, sales of these products increased nearly 53% to almost $48 billion a year. The popularity does not seem to be slowing down, with sales increasing by more than 11% between 2014 and 2015 alone. A 2016 study found that some consumers buy organic because they believe it’s better for the environment, but even more feel that it’s safer, healthier and tastier than regular food. There are many different terms used when describing organic products, but the bottom line is it refers to the way agricultural products are grown and processed.
Regulations vary from country to country, in the United States, for crop to be considered organic, they must be grown without the use of synthetic pesticides/fertilizers, bioengineered genes (genetically modified organisms or GMOs), antibiotics/growth hormones and sewage sludge-based fertilizers. The products aren’t allowed to be irradiated either. Any products claiming to be organic also are prohibited from containing artificial sweeteners, preservatives, coloring, flavoring and monosodium glutamate (MSG). However, it’s not necessarily pesticide free. Natural pesticides may be used. Since 2002, the regulation of organic foods falls to the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA). Any farmer or food producer selling organic food must meet the strict government standards under the organic certification program. The federal guidelines address many factors, such as soil quality, seed sources, crop health, weed/pest management, water systems, inputs, contamination/commingling risks/prevention, animal raising practices and use of additives. In order to receive the certification, farmers and handlers must document their processes and have on-site inspections every year. To be able to meet these standards, organic producers primarily rely on natural substances and physical, mechanical or biologically based farming methods. A farm can’t be certified as organic unless 36 months have passed since any prohibited substances were used on the land. For some small food producers who sell less than $5,000 per year of crops and meet the standards, they may call themselves organic and don’t have to go through the certification process.
If the product passes these tests, it’ll have the USDA organic seal. There are several statements to watch for as well. If something is labeled 100% Organic, it means the product is made entirely from organic ingredients. If it has just the word Organic on it, this indicates that at least 95% of the ingredients in it are organic. If a product says Made with Organic, at least 70% of the ingredients are organic. In addition, the remaining non-organic ingredients must produce without using prohibited practices, but can include substances that would not otherwise be allowed in 100% organic products. If a product contains less than 70% organic ingredients, it can’t use any of these labels. It’s important to note that small food producers who have organic products, but aren’t certified can’t use the label, even if they meet all the requirements. If a multi-ingredient product is labeled as organic, then all the agricultural ingredients must be organically produced. The only exception is if an ingredient is not commercially available in organic form. Furthermore, handlers must not let any organic products commingle with non-organic products or prohibited substances, such as artificial preservatives, colors or flavors. The USDA has a National List of Allowed and Prohibited Substances.
Obviously, most organic foods are natural, but not all natural foods are organic. The term natural is usually not a government-regulated term. The only use of it in this form is in regards to meat and poultry. Per government regulation, meat labeled “natural” has to be minimally processed in a way that does not alter the raw product. Some other terms to be aware of related to meat are Animal Welfare Approved, American Grassfed Association certified and Humane Farm Animal Care certified. Animal Welfare Approved means that the meat came from organically fed animals who were raised on pastures or ranges by independent farmers and taken care of in a humane fashion. American Grassfed Association certified indicates that the animals were never given antibiotics or hormones, raised unconfined on pastures, received a 100% forage diet and were born/raised on American family farms. Humane Farm Animal Care certified specifies the animals had unlimited access to the outdoors, weren’t confined, didn’t receive any antibiotics (unless sick) or hormones and cared for humanely.
The differences between organic and conventionally raised livestock is easily seen. Conventionally-raised livestock is given growth hormones for faster growth and non-organic, GMO feed. In addition, antibiotics and medications are used to prevent diseases and the animals may or may not have access to the outdoors. According to Animal Feed, conventionally raised animals in US can be given a variety of products. Cows, for diary and beef, are allowed to receive antibiotics, pig and chicken byproducts, growth hormones, pesticides and sewage sludge. Cows raised for beef also get steroids. Pigs, broiler chickens and egg laying hens are given antibiotics, animal byproducts, pesticides, sewage sludge and arsenic-based drugs. There have been several studies that found feeding livestock animal byproducts increases the risk of mad cow disease and the use of antibiotics in the animals can create antibiotic-resistant strains of bacteria that get passed on to humans. For organic livestock raised for meat, eggs and dairy products, they must have access to the outdoors and be given organic feed or allowed to forge naturally. They aren’t allowed be given antibiotics, growth hormones or any animal by-products. In order to prevent disease, natural methods, such as clean housing, rotational grazing and healthy diet, are used. Obviously, producers can’t withhold treatment from sick or injured animals, but if animals are treated with a prohibited substance, they may not be sold as organic. To be considered organic livestock, animals must be raised under organic management from the last third of gestation or no later than the second day of life (for poultry). For dairy products, the animals must be managed organically for at least 12 months before they can be labeled organic. In addition, cows must be out to pasture for the entire grazing season in order to receive at least 30% of their feed and that can’t be less than 120 days. Since antibiotics aren’t used in animals, products that we consume generally contain lower levels of antibiotic-resistant bacteria.
Produce can’t be certified as organic if it has been grown on soil that has had prohibited substances applied to any time in the past three years. Prohibited substances would include most synthetic fertilizers and pesticides. Instead, organic produce is grown with natural fertilizers, like manure and compost. To prevent weeds, crops are rotated, weeds are removed by hand and the area around is mulched or tilled. Pests are managed via birds, insects, traps and naturally-derived pesticides. When these procedures aren’t sufficient, then farmers may use a biological, botanical or synthetic substance approved by the USDA. Whenever possible, organic seeds must be used. In addition, organic farmers can’t use genetic engineering, ionizing radiation and sewage sludge. Conventional famers are allowed to use these. They’re also permitted to use synthetic/chemical fertilizers, chemical herbicides and synthetic pesticides.
Not everyone realizes that how food is grown or raised can have a major impact on their health, but it can significantly. One area of major concern is GMO or GE (genetically engineered) foods, which organic foods are not allowed to contain. In the case of plants who’ve been genetically modified, their DNA has been altered in ways that can’t occur in nature or in traditional crossbreeding. This is done to make the crops resistant to pesticides or produce an insecticide. They are commonly found in crops, like soybeans, alfalfa, squash, zucchini, papaya and canola. They’re present in much of the processed food that we consume, including breakfast cereals. One way to spot them is if a product lists corn syrup or soy lecithin in the ingredients, it most likely contains GMOs. The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and the biotech companies that engineer GMOs insist they are safe. Conversely, many food safety advocates call attention to the fact that no long term studies have ever been performed to confirm the safety of their use. In addition, some animal studies have shown that they may cause internal organ damage, slowed brain growth and thickening of the digestive tract. So far, in humans, they’ve been linked to increased food allergens and gastro-intestinal problems.
The issue with GMOs besides what it does to the plants themselves is the fact since its introduction the use of toxic herbicides, such as Roundup (glyphosate), has increased 15 fold. Chemicals, like fungicides, herbicides and insecticides, are widely used in conventional agriculture. These chemicals remain on, and in, the food you eat. Pesticide residues are four times more likely to be found on non-organic crops. It’s important to note that the conventionally grown produce were still well below safety limits. However, most of us have an accumulated build-up of them in our bodies due to numerous years of exposure. This chemical “body burden” can lead to health issues, like headaches, birth defects and added strain on weakened immune systems. Some studies have shown that the use of pesticides, even in low doses, increase the risk of certain cancers. Roundup is classified as a “probable human carcinogen.” The most vulnerable are children and fetuses since their immune systems, bodies and brains are still developing. There is some thought among experts that exposure to pesticides at an early age may cause developmental delays, behavioral disorders, autism, immune system harm and motor dysfunction. The insecticide chlorpyrifos has been linked to developmental delays in infants. In 2012, the American Academy of Pediatrics advised parents to decrease their children’s exposure to pesticides. Pregnant women are also susceptible since pesticides add stress to their already burdened organs. Additionally, women can pass pesticides to their unborn child and through breast milk. With the widespread use of pesticides, there has been an emergence of “super weeds” and “super bugs.” These can only be killed with extremely toxic poisons. These chemicals also then end up on the food you take in. Organic produce contains fewer pesticides because organic farms are only permitted to use naturally-derived pesticides. Natural pesticides are thought to be less toxic, but still pose some health risks. One thing for sure is that your exposure to harmful pesticides is lower if you eat organic products.
Besides the benefit of less pesticides and other chemicals, are organic foods better for you nutritionally? Unfortunately, studies comparing the nutrient content of organic foods to non-organic don’t provide a clear answer. One reason for this is that there is a natural variation in food handling and production. Several studies have looked at antioxidants and found that organic foods generally contain higher levels of them and certain micronutrients, like vitamin C, zinc and iron. In some case, antioxidant levels can be up to 69% higher. One study discovered that organically grown berries and corn had 58% more antioxidants and almost 52% higher amounts of vitamin C than non-organic. A different study reported that substituting regular fruit, vegetables and cereals with organic versions provides extra antioxidants, which is equivalent to eating 1-2 extra portions of fruit and vegetables daily. Higher antioxidant levels can help protect cells from damage. Another benefit of organic foods is that they’ve been shown to have 30% lower levels of nitrate. This is key because high nitrate levels are associated with an increased risk of certain types of cancer and the development of a condition called methemoglobinemia, which is a disease that affects an infant’s ability to have enough oxygen circulating in their body. Furthermore, organic milk and dairy products have been proven to contain higher levels of omega-3 fatty acids and slightly higher amounts of iron, vitamin E and some carotenoids. When it comes to organic meat, a review of 67 studies found that it contained higher levels of omega-3 fatty acids and slightly lower levels of saturated fats than conventional meat. Higher intake of omega-3 fatty acids is connected to many health benefits, including a reduced risk of heart disease. The American Heart Association maintains that eating saturated fat from any source increases the risk of heart disease, but other nutrition experts say that eating organic grass-fed meat and organic dairy products doesn’t have the same risks. These experts say the problem isn’t the saturated fat, but the unnatural diet of conventionally-raised animals. Cadmium, an extremely toxic metal, was found to be 48% lower in organic produce in one study. Since some experts worry that cadmium can accumulate in the body over time, this is could be an important factor. Some studies have linked organic foods to a lower risk of allergies and eczema in children and infants.
On the other hand, there are numerous studies that have found no differences between organic and non-organic foods. One compared the nutrient intakes of nearly 4,000 adults who were eating either organic or conventional vegetables and found conflicting results. There was a slightly higher intake of certain nutrients in the organic group, but this was most likely due to higher overall vegetable consumption. In a review of 55 studies, there was no differences in the nutrient content of between the two types of crops other than lower nitrate levels in organic produce. A different review of 233 studies didn’t find enough evidence to support organic food being more nutritious than regular food. Obviously, the results vary widely and some say this is because the nutrient content of food depends on many factors, such as soil quality, weather conditions and when the crops are harvested. When it comes to dairy products and meat, the differences can be from genetics, breed, what the animals eat, the time of year and type of farm. Also, there’s natural variations in the production and handling of foods.
It’s key to keep in mind that just because something says it’s organic doesn’t mean it’s healthy. It’s a common marketing strategy in the food industry to label baked goods, desserts and snacks as organic. This doesn’t mean that they’re lacking in sugar, salt, fat or calories, which is why it pays to read food labels carefully. There might raw cane sugar instead of plain sugar, but sugar is still sugar. So, if you choose organic junk food, you may just be selecting a slightly higher-quality version of it.
In addition to being better for people, organic farming is better for the environment because it reduces pollution, conserves water, decreases soil erosion, increases soil fertility and uses less energy. Organic farming improves soil quality and conservation of groundwater by not using chemical or sewage as fertilizer which reduces toxic runoff into rivers, lakes and, ultimately, into drinking water. These chemicals, nitrogen and phosphorus, used in conventional agriculture can end up contaminating areas far from farms where it’s used. They’re usually applied in liquid form, which is easily washed out of the soil. When they build up in nearby waterways, this is called nutrient pollution. When large amounts end up in lakes and oceans, they can cause large growths of algae, which are called algal blooms and can kill fish and other aquatic life. Naturally fertilized soils can cut the amount of pollution because having nitrogen in a plant form, compared to the liquid form, is better according to experts. The reason is plant-deposited nitrogen tends to stay put is because it’s attached to carbon molecules, which means there’s a molecular bond to hold it in place. In addition, organic farmers often plant cover crops which helps to promote the growth of beneficial fungi and bacteria in the soil. Compost also helps with this and providing nutrients for plants. Per scientists, healthy soils can help suppress plant diseases and hold water in the root zone.
Farming without pesticides is also good for nearby birds, animals and insects. One insect that is in trouble is the honeybee. Not only do they pick up pesticides as they roam from flower to flower, the chemicals appear able to sicken these important pollinators. A study published in the Bulletin of Insectology in May 2014 study 18 beehives for almost a year. Some of the bees had been exposed to two pesticides, imidacloprid and clothianidin. When compared to bees in hives free of these chemicals, it was discovered that even small amounts of the two pesticides triggered a biological change that led to bee deaths. Since farmers need bees to pollinate crops, if too many bees die, less pollination will occur and this will decrease farm harvests. In order to prevent an influx of pests and diseases, which could also reduce harvests, farmers can use some pesticides, but it should be those that pose less of a risk to bees and other beneficial wildlife.
Agriculture is responsible for some of greenhouse gas emissions. In the US, farming accounts for roughly 9% of emissions with about 50% of those coming from the soil. This is the result of fertilizers because once they’re applied to farmland, they generate emissions of nitrous oxide, which is the third-most-abundant greenhouse gas. While some organic farming practices help keep nitrous oxide emissions in check by promoting healthy soil, which releases less nitrous oxide, other practices have the opposite effect and encourage nitrous oxide emissions. Another consideration is that organic farming typically produces less food per acre, so farmers tend to need more land and organic fertilizer, which means larger greenhouse gas emissions. Some say organic farmers have a lower carbon footprint because they have a better relationship with the land that often involves growing a wider variety of crops, not packaging their products in single-use plastics or transporting them to buyers hundreds of miles away. The Rodale Institute, a nonprofit group that promotes organic farming, states that some studies fail to properly measure how much carbon dioxide the soil can absorb when it is cultivated using sustainable methods. They estimate that organic farmland could reduce more carbon than is currently emitted.
One caveat is that organic food is often more expensive than conventionally-grown food. The price is as much as 10% to 50% more than conventional foods. Organic food is more expensive because it’s more labor intensive. Often, organic farms are smaller than conventional farms, so fixed costs and overhead have to be distributed across smaller produce volumes without government subsidies. In addition, organic certification is expensive and organic feed for animals can cost twice as much.
The Environmental Working Group is a nonprofit organization that examines the results of government pesticide testing in the US. They put out a list every year to help you find products that you should definitely get organic because they have the conventionally grow have the highest pesticide levels. This list includes apples, sweet bell peppers, cucumbers, celery, potatoes, grapes, cherry tomatoes, kale/collard greens, summer squash, nectarines (imported), peaches, spinach, strawberries and hot peppers. There are fruits and vegetables you don’t need to buy organic because they have low levels of pesticides, they’re known as the “Clean 15.” This includes asparagus, avocado, mushrooms, cabbage, sweet corn, eggplant, kiwi, mango, onion, papaya, pineapple, sweet peas (frozen), sweet potatoes, grapefruit and cantaloupe. Experts do recommend buying organic meat, eggs and dairy if you can afford to. There are several ways to find organic foods cheaper than the grocery store. One of the most common is to shop at farmers’ markets. Besides the benefits you receive, buying locally grown food keeps money within your local economy. Another option is to join a food co-op, which typically offers lower prices to members (who pay an annual fee to belong). You could also join a Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) farm. This is when individuals and families join up to purchase “shares” of produce in bulk directly from a local farm. All of these reduce the transport that is required to get produce, meat, dairy and other products to your table. On average, the distance a meal travels from the farm to your dinner plate is over 1,500 miles. This means that produce must be picked when it’s still unripe and then gassed to “ripen” it after transport. The other option is that it’s highly processed in factories using preservatives, irradiation and other means to keep it stable for transport. This doesn’t happen with local food, which is harvested when ripe making it fresher and full of flavor. It’s helpful to buy products are in season or check the freezer aisle of the grocery store for organic foods, which will stay fresher longer than non-frozen foods. Also, remember produce items with thicker skins tend to have fewer pesticide residues. While washing your produce reduces pesticides, it doesn’t eliminate them. If you’re interested in finding farmers’ markets, organic farms and grocery co-ops in your area, visit the Eat Well Guide or Local Harvest.
If you’re trying to reduce exposure to pesticide residues, organic is definitely the best choice. However, if you’re buying organic because you feel that they’re more nutritious, the evidence doesn’t seem to support that. No question, the biggest downside to organic foods is the higher cost. So, experts recommend purchasing the organic foods that you can, but don’t cut out nutritious foods to buy only organic ones. Experts also say that vulnerable groups should buy organic because they’re the ones that would benefit the most from choosing it. The bottom line is if you want to get the most from your food, eat it while it’s fresh, have a varied diet, wash all produce thoroughly and buy organic whenever possible.