Organic food might not always be more nutritious. But it does have fewer chemicals, which is especially important for growing children!
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To buy organic sounds like an obvious choice. But if you're like me, then at some point you realized you don't really know what it means... or why it justifies the price tag. So why bother? Is organic food even better for you?
The short answer is that while organic food might not always be better for you, the conventional (read: non-organic) alternatives might still be worse for you. Confusing right?
What Does "Organic" Even Mean?
All organic produce in the US is regulated by the US Department of Agriculture (USDA).
Simply put, organic foods are the most "naturally" grown or raised ones. They are produced with fewer pesticides and fertilizers or without antibiotics and growth hormones.
For food or produce to be labeled organic it must be:
- Made without genetic engineering (GMO), sewage sludge fertilizers or ionizing radiation
- Not made with any other banned substances (from the National List of Allowed and Prohibited Substances)
- Overseen by the USDA or a certified agent, basically checking that it meets all the criteria
For livestock, this also means it is:
- Raised without antibiotics or growth hormones
- Fed 100% certified organic feed (other than trace minerals and vitamins used to meet animal nutritional requirements)
- Raised according to animal health and welfare standards
- Raised on certified organic land
- Allowed year-round outdoor access
- Given limited vaccines, pain medication, and dewormers
Note: The USDA does not currently certify fish or seafood.
What About Imported Organic Products?
In order for foreign organic products to be sold in the US, the USDA either authorizes organizations around the world to certify farms and businesses or the US has an established trade partnership with other countries. You can learn more here.
Understanding Organic Labels
1. Single-Ingredient Labels
2. Multi-Ingredient Labels
Multi-ingredient food will have one of four labels:
- "100% Organic" – made with 100% organic ingredients and may display the USDA organic seal
- "Organic" – contain at least 95-99% organic ingredients and may display the USDA organic seal
- "Made with organic X" – must contain at least 70% certified organic ingredients, excluding salt and water. All ingredients must be produced without any GMOs. These products will not display the USDA organic seal
- Products with less than 70% organic ingredients can use the word organic on the ingredients panel but cannot show any other organic label
The Cost Difference For Buying Organic Food
It's probably obvious to say that it's cheaper to farm and produce food if there are fewer regulations and certification requirements. The USDA also actually charges farmers for organic certification.
As a result, buying organic can mean paying almost a 50% premium in some cases. And more if you're determined to get all your produce at Whole Foods (I'm more of a Trader Joes person).
The government subsidizes big farms to grow corn, soybeans and wheat. These are used to produce cheap, unhealthy food and feed animals. This is one of the reasons why processed food is cheaper than healthy food, and conventional food is cheaper than organic.
Is it Healthier to Buy Organic?
Overall, yes. Definitely. While there's little evidence showing that organic food has better nutrient content, conventional food is made with pesticides that will make their way to your plate.
So What's Wrong With Non-Organic Food?
The Environmental Working Group (EWG) reports on the pesticide content of our food every year. In 2019 they found that nearly 70% of conventional produce is contaminated by pesticides. This number has stayed flat for the last few years.
And one of the worst offenders (you might want to put down that $8 green smoothie for a second) is kale!
More than 92 percent of kale samples had [between 2 and 18] pesticide residues detected ... The most frequently detected pesticide, found on nearly 60 percent of kale samples, was ... a possible human carcinogen, and prohibited for use in Europe since 2009.EWG's 2019 Shopper's Guide to Pesticides in Produce
Over 150 different pesticides have been found on food that ends up in your local supermarket, and some stay on your food even after it has been washed or peeled. Needless to say, pesticides are used for killing insects so they are essentially poisons. No they won't kill you... but clearly you'd be better off not eating them.
Overall, you might not think it's that big a deal. But it's particularly important to buy organic when you're pregnant or feeding babies as the pesticides are particularly harmful if consumed earlier in life.
Certain pesticides have been shown to have links to Parkinson’s, Alzheimers, cancer and developmental abnormalities in fetusus.
Other pesticides that have been banned in the US have found to be sold to farmers in other countries. This can result in imported foods that have been treated with banned pesticides.
Organic farmers can still use certain substances but these are more often than not naturally occurring.
Is Organic Food More Nutritious?
The short answer is sometimes.
Meanwhile, some studies have shown that there is not much difference at all in the nutritional content of organic food vs. conventional.
What most tend to agree on is that the difference is ultimately minimal if you don’t eat a healthy balanced diet. Organic ketchup is going to be less healthy than a conventional tomato. And if you can’t afford organic food, you should still eat conventional fruit and vegetables.
What to Buy Organic
If you can't buy everything organic, you can at least prioritize the "dirtiest" foods to avoid pesticides as much as possible.
So if you can't afford to buy everything organic, hopefully you can still get the organic option for the following:
The "Dirty Dozen"
Buy in Season and Local
Buying organic produce that is in season can be cheaper. Also, going to your local farmers market will usually turn out more affordable than buying in a supermarket.
A lot of the farmers will adhere to organic practices but may not have the certification due to the cost. Have a chat with the farmers selling at the market and feel free to ask about their practices!
For meat, US Wellness Meats adheres to organic practices even though they do not have the certification and they ship throughout the country.