Natural, all-natural, free-range, cage-free, pesticide-free, made-with-organic-ingredients, grass-fed, eco-friendly…With labels like these, how are you supposed to tell what you’re eating?
If you’re putting it in your body, we think you should know exactly how it was made and what it contains. So today, we’re taking the most common label of all and breaking it down—in a totally transparent way.
ORGANIC. What exactly does it mean? What are the pros and cons of eating organic? And how can you tell if something is really organic?
What is organic anyway?
On the most basic level, organic means that the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) took a look at where and how that food item was produced and said, “Yep, this satisfies our federal standards.” The USDA organic standards address soil quality, animal raising practices, pest and weed control, and the use of additives or GMOs.
Organic standards govern the entire growing process, from seed to harvest to retail. The idea is that organic farmers use only natural processes to produce their food. So no bioengineering, no chemicals, and no hormones. Because the production process is different for different types of products, each process is governed by a unique set of rules. So, produce has different standards from grains, which have different standards from dairy, which has different standards from meat.
Here are the rules for growing organic fruit and vegetables and producing organic meat, dairy, and eggs.
FOR ORGANIC PRODUCE:
- Grown with natural fertilizers, like manure and compost. Note: Minimal synthetic fertilizers are allowed, but they have to pass USDA requirements. (These requirements are determined by said fertilizers’ effects on long-term health.)
- Grown in clean soil! Produce can only be considered organic if it’s grown in soil that has been exposed to zero prohibited substances in the last 3 years.
- Weeds are controlled naturally, through processes like crop rotation, hand weeding, mulching, and tilling (as opposed to the chemical herbicides used in conventional farming methods.)
- Pests controlled naturally. Organic farms will use birds, insect predators, insect traps, and naturally-derived pesticides. No chemical-based pesticides are allowed whatsoever.
- No GMOs! Bioengineered genes are strictly prohibited.
FOR ORGANIC MEAT, DAIRY, AND EGGS:
- Livestock is fed organic, hormone-free food. In non-organic methods, they’ll give livestock growth hormones, but these have been proven detrimental to the humans that eat the animal’s products.
- Disease is prevented by natural methods, like clean housing, rotational grazing, and a healthy diet, rather than antibiotics (which can lead to dangerous bacterial growth!)
- Livestock has access to the outdoors! It’s not much, but it’s something.
Should I eat organic?
It’s up to you. To help you make an educated decision, here are the pros and cons of eating organic (and why we ultimately recommend it).
8 Pros To Eating Organic
- Fresher. Organic food can’t contain as many preservatives or use irradiation. Because of this, organic food is often produced on smaller farms closer to you, meaning it’s picked riper and is fresher when it gets to you.
- Earth-friendly! Organic farming methods reduce pollution, conserve water, reduce soil erosion, ensure long-lasting soil fertility, and use less energy in total. Plus, when you grow without chemical pesticides, it’s better for the people and animals that live close to the farms—general air and water quality are higher!
- No antibiotics, growth hormones, or animal byproducts in feed. Antibiotics used in conventional farming methods create antibiotic-resistant strains of bacteria—which no one wants. When you feed animals animal byproducts, you dramatically increase the chance of mad cow disease.
- Richer in nutrients. Organic produce specifically contains more of certain types of flavonoids, which are known for their healthful antioxidant properties. In other words, eating organic is a great way to boost your health!
- Allergies, be gone. People with allergies to specific foods, chemicals, or preservatives often find that symptoms will disappear or lessen when eating organic foods only.
- Omega-3 fatty acids. This is a kind of fat that’s heart-healthy, and it has way higher levels in organic dairy, eggs, and meat than their conventionally grown counterparts—up to a 50% increase!
- Waaay less toxic metal. Cadmium is a toxic metal found naturally in soil and absorbed by plants. For some reason, organic foods—specifically grains—show significantly lower cadmium levels than the alternative.
- Less pesticide residue! This being said, they’re not totally free of it. There are specific pesticides approved for organic growing, and sometimes airborne pesticides from conventional farms can infiltrate organic produce and leave some residue.
The Con To Eating Organic
- Organic costs more.
We know this is no small setback. Organic farming is more labor-intensive, organic certification is expensive, and organic feed for animals costs double the conventional type. Plus, organic farms are generally smaller, which means they produce less volume and therefore make less money. Because of these things, organic is always more expensive.
To keep it cheap, shop at your local farmer’s market, join a food co-op, or grow your own food! Additionally, check out community supported agriculture farms—these are local, organic farms where individuals or families in the community sign up to purchase a share of produce in bulk regularly.
Other price-conscious options?
Buy in season and buy local. The produce will be cheaper, the transport costs will be way less, and it will be overall fresher. And don’t be afraid to shop around! Compare prices—every store prices a little differently, and if you search them out, you’ll find good deals.
Sometimes, the cost is a deal-breaker. That’s okay.
Here are the things you should absolutely buy organic and the ones you can do without.
WORTH THE COST:
Apples, sweet bell peppers, cucumbers, celery, potatoes, cherry tomatoes, kale, collard greens, summer squash, nectarines, peaches, spinach, grapes, hot peppers, and strawberries should be bought organic as much as possible. Add dairy, meat, and eggs to this list! When it comes to these items, you’ll be grateful you ate organic.
THE “CLEAN 15” VEGETABLES & FRUITS:
Asparagus, avocado, mushrooms, cabbage, sweet corn, eggplant, kiwi, mango, onion, papaya, pineapple, frozen sweet peas, sweet potatoes, grapefruit, and cantaloupe are known as the “clean 15.”
In other words, they’re OK to eat non-organic and relatively safe when grown conventionally.
How do I tell if it’s organic?
Simple. It says so. The USDA has established an organic certification program that issues a specific seal only organic-certified food items can boast. If it doesn’t have this seal, it’s not organic. Now, go shop to your heart’s content and get yourself some organic eats!
Does organic mean pesticide free?
No. Organic farms do use pesticides, but only naturally-derived pesticides. They’re less toxic, but they still might pose some health risks.
Can I just wash and peel veggies instead of buying organic?
Unfortunately, no. We understand the urge, but while peeling and washing veggies will reduce some of the effects of conventional growing, it can’t quite eliminate all pesticides and fertilizers. Plus, if the soil a plant was grown in is contaminated, the fruit/veggie will be too.
Is there such a thing as unhealthy organic food?
Yes. All sorts of junk food meet the organic requirements, but that doesn’t mean it’s a good option for everyday eating. Keep an eye out for ‘organic’ processed foods, and don’t let the label fool you.
What’s the difference between 100% organic and organic?
“100% organic” means exactly that—all ingredients involved are organic. “Organic” means the food item is made with at least 95% organic ingredients. There’s also “Made with organic ingredients,” which tells you that at least 70% of the ingredients are organic.
Where can I buy organic food?
These days, anywhere! Most grocery stores have a great organic selection—, especially for produce. Does organic food taste better? Absolutely. It’s fresher, healthier, and picked at a riper stage.
Protect your and your family’s health by eating organic. Yes, it costs more, but in the end, you’ll be happy you did! Plus, organic always tastes more flavorful and fresher—more joy per bite!