When you are shopping for food, do you buy products labeled “organic?”
Regardless of whether you answered “yes” or “no,” there is a good chance you have some confusion about what exactly it means for a food or beverage to bear the “organic” label.
In this post, we aim to clear up that confusion. Below, we definite organic food and go over its advantages and drawbacks. That way, you will be able to decide for yourself whether to purchase and consume organic goods.
What is Organic Food?
Organic food is food that meets the criteria to receive the USDA organic label. The standards the USDA sets for this label can be found here.
While we will not list the full standards for organic food here, in general, organic food production:
Does not involve the use of synthetic pesticides, herbicides, or fertilizers.
May not entail the use of growth hormones or antibiotics.
May not be subjected to irradiation.
Does not involve genetically-modified organisms (GMOs).
Originally, the term “organic” was up for grabs among food producers. But that started to change in 1973. That year, Oregon started to regulate use of the term. While more states joined in over the years that followed, they did not all agree to the same set of standards. That was why in 1990, Congress passed the Organic Foods Production Act. But it was not until February 2001 that the USDA organic standards were established.
Key Benefits of Organic Food
It does not take long to figure out at the store that your grocery bills will go up if you start buying organic. This will leave you asking, “Is organic food worth it?”
To answer your question, let’s go over the benefits of organic food for your health and for the environment.
Keep in mind that research into organic vs. conventionally farmed foods is ongoing, and you can find some contradicting data out there.
Organic Food Benefits for Your Health
1. Higher Nutrition
One reason to consider shopping for organic food is so that you can enjoy the benefits of more nutrition.
Here is a meta-analysis that investigated the data from 343 peer-reviewed publications. The researchers reported, “The concentrations of a range of antioxidants such as polyphenolics were found to be substantially higher in organic crops/crop-based foods.”
Some vitamins and minerals may also be more abundant in organic foods than conventionally farmed foods.
For example, this study shows that spinach that is organically grown contains more vitamin C than conventionally grown spinach.
The same study we linked about antioxidants found that not only were organic foods more nutritious, but they also contained lower concentrations of cadmiums.
3. Consume fewer nitrates.
The same study that showed the superior vitamin C content of organic spinach also showed that it contained a lower concentration of nitrates.
Nitrates can lead to a variety of health problems such as birth defects, blue baby syndrome, thyroid disease, higher risk of cancer, and more. For many people who are prone to headaches, nitrates also can be a trigger.
4. Improve the fatty acid profile of common foods in your diet.
While a lot of people still believe that “fat is bad,” in truth, it comes down to the types of fat you consume.
In particular, omega-3 fatty acids are considered to be healthy, exerting an anti-inflammatory effect.
If you eat organic meat, there is research that suggests that you may be getting more omega-3 fatty acids than you would otherwise.
5. Reduce your exposure to chemicals.
As we already noted, you may not be exposed to as much cadmium when you choose to eat organic as you would be if you were consuming conventionally-produced food.
It is also possible you may be exposed to less of other chemical pesticides, herbicides, fungicides, etc. by eating organic.
6. Reduce your exposure to antibiotic-resistant bacteria.
Antibiotic-resistant bacteria have become a major health problem around the globe. Naturally, it is something you want to avoid encountering in your food.
This research says that you may be exposed to less antibiotic-resistant bacteria consuming organic foods than those that are conventionally-farmed.
It is also important to note that the very use of antibiotics in conventionally-farmed livestock is a contributing factor to the problem of antibiotic-resistant bacteria.
So, when you eat organic, you are avoiding putting money into an industry that is worsening antibiotic resistance.
Organic Food Benefits for the Planet
1. Supports soil health.
One of the biggest advantages of organic agriculture is that it contributes to healthy soil through nitrogen holding, nitrogen fixing, and maintaining a community of beneficial microorganisms and fungi.
This is of vital importance in our times. BBC explains, “The dirt beneath our feet is getting poorer and on many farms worldwide, there is less and less of it. Soils are becoming severely degraded due to a combination of intensive farming practices and natural processes. As the layer of fertile topsoil thins, it gets increasingly difficult to grow crops for food. Without altering agricultural practices and urgently finding ways to preserve soil, the global food supply starts to look precarious.”
Organic farmers can help to combat this threat to the food supply chain. When you eat organic, you support their efforts to restore our soil.
2. Fights climate change.
Not only are we in danger of having less food available in the coming years, but climate change is sweeping the globe, already causing devastating consequences. The harsh fires, floods and heat domes of recent years are just a preview of life’s coming attractions.
The European Environment Agency says, “Despite the uncertainties, restoring ecosystems and improving soil quality could be a very cost-efficient measure in terms of climate action with a triple impact.”
The agency continues, “According to the FAO, restoring currently degraded soils could remove up to 63 billion tonnes of carbon, which would offset a small but important share of global greenhouse gas emissions. Second, healthy soils keep the carbon underground. Third, many natural and semi-natural areas act as powerful defences against the impacts of climate change.”
The University of Colorado says, “Rodale’s research shows that: “If only 10,000 medium-sized farms in the U.S. converted to organic production, they would store so much carbon in the soil that it would be equivalent to taking 1,174,400 cars off the road, or reducing car miles driven by 14.62 billion miles.”
So, by eating organic, you are choosing to support farming practices that may help to put the brakes on climate change.
3. Reduce pollution.
Just as you do not want chemicals in your food, it is also something we want to keep out of our groundwater. With organic farming, fewer chemicals end up in our lakes, rivers and drinking water. This helps to keep plants, humans and animals healthier.
4. Protect biodiversity.
The Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations writes, “Organic farmers are both custodians and users of biodiversity at all levels … The frequent use of under-utilized species (often as rotation crops to build soil fertility) reduces erosion of agro-biodiversity, creating a healthier gene pool – the basis for future adaptation.”
The page linked above at FAO provides a lot of great information about what we have discussed in this section. Take a look to learn more about how organic farming helps to protect the health of our planet’s ecosystem.
Does Organic Food Have Any Drawbacks?
While organic food offers many benefits, it is important to be aware that the label does have some limitations.
For example, Eater says, “Advocates say factory farm operations that use organic feed but confine thousands of chickens or cows into cramped indoor spaces do not meet the standard, but those farms are continually approved for certification.”
In short, these companies are breaking the rules and getting away with it.
As a consumer, you would only know if this were happening by doing a lot of research before heading to the supermarket.
It is worth visiting the link above to read the full post when you have a moment, as it is very enlightening.
Another drawback of organic food is the higher price tag. But many consumers agree it is worth spending more to enjoy the benefits of properly produced organic food.
Finally, while we have shared research with you that points toward health benefits of organic food, you should know that there are studies out there that do not suggest substantial benefits.
You will need to conduct your own research and examine the evidence, drawing your own conclusions.
Regardless, there is no denying that organic practices that support soil health and biodiversity while combating climate change are essential to protecting our planet and our lives.
How to Shop for Organic Food
When you are in the store, you can look for the “Organic” label on food. But you need to know that there are actually multiple tiers of “Organic” labeling:
100% organic: This is the best label you can find. If you see this label, it means that every ingredient in the food item (with the exceptions of water and salt) are certified organic. While it commonly appears on single-ingredient items (i.e. eggs), you might sometimes also find it on other products that combine ingredients.
Organic: This is the next best label. 95% or more of the ingredients in the product must be certified organic for it to bear this label (again, water and salt do not count). Not only that, but there are also quality standards for the other ingredients. They must be USDA-approved.
Made with organic: This label is not nearly as good as “Organic,” but it is actually a bit better than it may sound at a glance. 70% or more of the ingredients must be certified organic for it to say “made with organic” on it. If you check the ingredients list, it will clearly state which of the ingredients are organic and which are not.
Organic ingredients: The weakest label is “Organic Ingredients.” This just means that there are at least some organic ingredients in the product, but they add up to under 70% of its contents. You can take a look at the label to see if you can guess how much of the product is organic based on which ingredients are listed as such.
You may sometimes see the word “natural” on foods, but be warned—this is not the same as USDA-certified “organic.” In fact, its meaning is ambiguous.
Shop Organic for Your Health and the Planet—But Do Your Research
Hopefully, you are now feeling less confused and more informed as to what organic food is and why it matters. Let’s sum up the key takeaways:
For a food to legally bear a label as “organic,” it must meet the USDA standards for organic practices.
Some research suggests that organic foods are more nutritious than non-organic foods and expose us to fewer chemicals than conventionally-farmed foods.
Organic food is better for the planet because organic farming practices help to protect the soil and biodiversity. The effects of these practices help to slow climate change rather than speed it up.
Sadly, some companies that receive the “organic” stamp of approval are actually cheating. So, you need to do your homework while you shop to make sure you are buying only from true organic producers.
Given the points above, we can conclude that yes, buying and eating organic is worth the extra price.
Doing so may help you put healthier food on your table, and certainly helps protect our fragile global ecosystem. We need to act now if we want to have a chance to prevent the worst effects of climate change. Something as simple as choosing organic at the grocery store is an easy way to contribute to the well-being of our entire world.