Organic Foods - Are They More Nutritious and Worth the Cost?
Updated: Mar 26
Organic, natural, GMO...oh, my! What do the labels mean and what does it mean for your health? Read on to find out.
If you’re like me, I want my kids to know that chicken doesn’t naturally come in the shape of dinosaurs...or that fish don’t swim as breaded sticks. And that veggie straws aren’t really a form of vegetables. (Yes, sad, but true.) But maybe that’s not good enough...maybe I can do more for my family’s health.
Should I buy organic foods?
Maybe we should go GMO-free?
What is "Natural", anyway?
Organic foods and the labeling process can be confusing and so can the health implications. Here's the breakdown.
Who is in charge of labeling foods organic?
Here, in the U.S., the National Organic Program of the USDA’s Agricultural Marketing Service enforces the organic regulations.
What defines an Organic food?
Here is a breakdown of the food labels you might see in the grocery store:
The term ‘organic’ refers to the way farmers grow and process agricultural products, including crops and livestock. Organic farming techniques involve biodiversity, integration, sustainability, natural plant nutrition, natural pest management, and integrity.
Organic labels can be found on produce, dairy, meat, processed foods, condiments, and beverages. A food product can contain the “USDA Organic Seal” if it contains at least 95% organic ingredients with no synthetic growth hormones, antibiotics, pesticides, biotechnology, synthetic ingredients, sewage sludge, or irradiation used in production or processing. The products must also undergo the organic certification process.
Organic crops are those that are not grown with the use of synthetic herbicides, pesticides, fertilizers, or bioengineered genes (GMOs). Organic produce must be grown on soil that did not have a prohibited substance applied for 3 years prior to harvest (most synthetic fertilizers and pesticides).
Organic meat requires that animals are raised in living conditions accommodating their natural behaviors, fed organic feed, and not administered antibiotics or hormones.
“Made with organic ingredients”
This label can be used if a product has at least 70% organic ingredients and is produced without synthetic methods. (But they cannot use the USDA organic seal on their packaging.)
How many organic labels are there?
There are four distinct labeling categories for organic products:
-100 percent organic
-products must consist of 100% certified organic ingredients. The label must contain the name of the certifying agent and may include the USDA Organic Seal and/or the 100% Organic claim. -Organic
- these products must contain ingredients that are certified organic. The exception is these ingredients found on the National List of Allowed and Prohibited Substances. According to the USDA, “no more than five percent of the combined total ingredients may contain non-organic content. Additionally, the label must include the name of the certifying agent, and may include the USDA Organic Seal and/or the organic claim.”
-“Made with” organic ingredients
- at least 70% percent of the product must be certified organic ingredients; the organic seal cannot be used on the product, and the final product cannot be represented as organic
– Up to three ingredients or ingredient categories can be represented as organic. The rest of the ingredients don’t have to be organic but must be produced without genetic engineering.
-Specific Organic Ingredients
-Multi-ingredient products with less than 70 percent certified organic content
-don’t need to be certified
-cannot display the USDA Organic Seal or use the word organic on the principal display panel. They can list certified organic ingredients in the ingredient list and the percentage of organic ingredients.
Then there's these labels, in case you weren't confused enough....
-Certified Naturally Grown
-This label indicates that a food was not grown on a certified organic farm by the National Organic Program of the USDA, but was grown using the same standards as those for organic. As farmers have criticized the cost and process needed to participate in the USDA’s organic program, this is an alternative, non-governmental certification system where other farmers act as inspectors in a program administered by a non-profit organization called Certified Naturally Grown.
-This grass-fed label is administered by the USDA for ruminant animals like cows and goats. It states that these animals must be fed only grass and forage during the growing season. According to Farmaid.org, “The American Grassfed Association is one organization that certifies beef, bison, dairy, lamb and goat that is fed only on pasture, in addition to being raised without antibiotics, synthetic hormones, confinement and with standards for high animal welfare. Other animals, like chicken and pigs, can be pasture-raised (and USDA organic standards require at least some access to pasture), but there are currently no specific certification standards for non-ruminant animals being grass fed or pastured.”
Are Organic Foods Healthier and More Nutritious?
The public’s perception that organic foods are healthier has created a multi-billion dollar organic food industry. Studies of the nutrient content vary and how they may contribute to health. Nutrient content varies from farmer to farmer and from year to year.
But reviews of multiple studies show that organic foods provide greater levels of:
vitamin C, iron, magnesium, phosphorus, antioxidant phytochemicals, (anthocyanins, flavonoids, and carotenoids), omega-3 fatty acids.
And lower levels of:
-nitrates, pesticide residues.
In four separate clinical trials, people who switched from conventionally grown to organic foods saw a rapid and dramatic reduction in their urinary pesticide concentrations, a marker of pesticide exposure.
The research also shows that the levels of harmful chemicals in conventionally grown produce may only be ~30% lower than organically grown produce. Remember, organic foods are not necessarily 100% free of pesticides.
Whether you choose organic or conventionally grown, you should still practice these tips:
-Choose a variety of foods and vary your intake so you decrease your chances of being exposed to a single pesticide
-Buy fruits and vegetables in season or or shop at a local farmer's market
-Keep an eye on the "Dirty Dozen" list. (Get the Environmental Working Group's 2021 List here.) (The EWG uses test data from the federal Department of Agriculture to assess residues of potentially harmful chemical pesticides on fruits and vegetables. Each year, they put out a list of the top 12 produce that contains these chemical residues. (Note to self: strawberries are almost always #1 😢)
-Scrub produce thoroughly
-this helps remove dirt, bacteria, and some chemicals from fruits and vegetables. Since this won't remove most pesticides, make sure to peel the skin off fruit when able and discard outer leaves of leafy greens.
What do you think? What do you do at home? Will this change what you do and the food you buy??
3. Crinnion WJ. Organic foods contain higher levels of certain nutrients, lower levels of pesticides, and may provide health benefits for the consumer. Altern Med Rev. 2010 Apr;15(1):4-12. PMID: 20359265.
4. Vigar, V., et al., A Systematic Review of Organic Versus Conventional Food Consumption: Is There a Measurable Benefit on Human Health? Nutrients, 2020; 12(1), 7. DOI: https://doi.org/10.3390/nu12010007. Available at: https://www.mdpi.com/2072-6643/12/1/7/htm.