“Organic” seems to be the catchword of the year. Organic fruits, vegetables, meats, breads, cereals, coffees, wines, beers, and pet foods are appearing on market shelves well beyond the likes of Whole Foods and Trader Joe’s. According to Business Week, organic foods are becoming big business everywhere from Wal-Mart to Costco. What does this all mean? When standing with a piece of conventional produce in one hand and in the other, a more expensive organic version, how do you decide which is better? Does organic mean it’s safer, worth the extra money, healthier and more nutritious? Several differences between organic and non-organic foods exist and making sense of it all can be overwhelming. Here is some information that might shed light on the “organic” movement.
1. The following labels were established by the United States Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) National Organic Program (NOP) to guarantee consumers know the exact organic make up of the food they buy.
Single-Ingredient Foods: 100% Organic is labeled with the USDA’s seal (pictured above).
- Cartons of milk
- Other single-ingredient foods
Multi-Ingredient Foods: Labels include 100% Organic, Organic, Made with Organic Ingredients and Other.
- Processed foods
100% Organic—Foods bearing this label are made with 100% organic ingredients and may display the USDA Organic seal.
Organic—These products contain at least 95–99% organic ingredients (by weight). The remaining ingredients are not available organically but have been approved by the NOP. These products may display the USDA Organic seal.
Made With Organic Ingredients—Food packaging that reads “Made With Organic Ingredients” must contain 70–94% organic ingredients. These products will not bear the USDA Organic seal; instead, they may list up to three ingredients on the front of the packaging.
Other—Products with less than 70% organic ingredients may only list organic ingredients on the information panel of the packaging. These products will not bear the USDA Organic seal.
2. What is the difference between conventional farming versus organic farming: Here is a breakdown, according to the Mayo Clinic:
|Conventional farmers||Organic farmers|
|Apply chemical fertilizers to promote plant growth.||Apply natural fertilizers, such as manure or compost, to feed soil and plants.|
|Spray insecticides to reduce pests and disease.||Use beneficial insects and birds, mating disruption or traps to reduce pests and disease.|
|Use chemical herbicides to manage weeds.||Rotate crops, till, hand weed or mulch to manage weeds.|
|Give animals antibiotics, growth hormones and medications to prevent disease and spur growth.||Give animals organic feed and allow them access to the outdoors. Use preventive measures — such as rotational grazing, a balanced diet and clean housing — to help minimize disease.|
3. Benefits of Organic Food: Some studies show that organic foods have a higher quantity of beneficial nutrients including antioxidants and minerals. In addition:
- Organic produce contains fewer pesticides: Pesticide exposure could lead to health issues such as headaches, birth defects, and added strain on weakened immune systems. Pesticide exposure may cause developmental delays, behavioral disorders, and motor dysfunction in young children. In pregnant women, pesticides can be passed from mother to child in the womb, as well as through breast milk. Some exposures can cause delayed effects on the nervous system, even years after the initial exposure.
- Organic food is often fresher: Organic food is generally fresher when eaten because it doesn’t contain preservatives that make it last longer.
- Organic farming is better for the environment: Organic farming practices can reduce pollution (air, water, soil), conserve water, reduce soil erosion, increase soil fertility, and use less energy.
- Organically raised animals are NOT given antibiotics, growth hormones or fed animal byproducts.
At the end of the day, the decision to buy organic is based on consumer economics, preference and belief. If I am directly eating the skin of a vegetable or fruit such as an apple, strawberry or carrot; I am more likely to buy organic. If I am eating thick-skinned fruits or vegetables (where the skin is not ingested) such as bananas, avocados or butternut squash, then buying organic isn’t always a priority.