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Organic Foods: Are They Better for You?

Potential benefits include fewer pesticides and insecticides and more nutrients — but it all comes at an additional cost

Person in grocery market with basket of fresh veggies picking out tomatoes

You’re strolling through your local farmers market or nearby grocery store checking items off your shopping list. You’re trying to eat healthier so you pick up fruits and vegetables, but as you reach for some tomatoes, you see there’s an “organic” option as well.

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Should you be eating organic foods instead of conventionally grown or raised foods? And what is organic food?

The world of organic foods — produce, grains, meat, dairy and eggs — can be hard to understand.

But we’re here to help wade through all the labels, regulations and options. Registered dietitian Maxine Smith, RD, LD, explains the pros and cons of eating organic foods and shares how to know if something is organic.

What does organic mean?

Organic foods are foods that are grown and processed using government-regulated farming methods. Organic farming and foods use:

  • No synthetic fertilizers or pesticides (with exceptions).
  • No antibiotics or growth hormones for livestock.
  • No genetically modified ingredients or GMOs.
  • No artificial flavors, colors or preservatives.
  • No sewage sludge.
  • No radiation on foods.

“Organic food is not necessarily pesticide-free,” clarifies Smith. “Natural pesticides may be used in the production of organic foods.”

You may also see the term “certified organic.” To be certified USDA (U.S. Department of Agriculture) Organic, farms and food producers must meet certain standards. Only products that contain at least 95% organic ingredients can be certified organic and display the USDA seal.

There are different certification levels of “organic.” These are:

  • 100% organic. “100% organic” can be used to label any product that contains 100% organic ingredients (excluding salt and water, which are considered natural). Most raw, unprocessed farm products are 100% organic. Many grains, oats and flours can also be labeled “100% organic.”
  • Organic. “Organic” can be used to label any product that contains a minimum of 95% organic ingredients (excluding salt and water). Up to 5% of the ingredients may be nonorganic agricultural products that aren’t available as organic.
  • Made with organic. “Made with organic” can be used to label a product that contains at least 70% organically produced ingredients (excluding salt and water). The nonorganic portion must also follow USDA guidelines. These products can’t be labeled “USDA Organic.”
  • Specific ingredient listings. The specific organic ingredients may be listed in the ingredient statement of products containing less than 70% organic content. These products can’t be labeled “USDA Organic.”

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“Certified organic farms and food processors must be recertified every year,” says Smith. “Land can’t be certified organic until 36 months have passed since any prohibited substances were used on the land.”

How to know if something is organic

It can be confusing to walk down the produce aisle and tell what’s actually organic.

Again, all foods labeled “USDA Organic” must meet standards set by the USDA. The USDA evaluates how food is grown, processed and handled. If a food meets these standards it may be labeled “USDA Organic.”

And to make it even more unclear, small food producers who sell less than $5,000 per year may also call themselves organic if they meet these standards. However, they don’t have to go through the certification process (but also can’t label their food as “USDA Organic”).

When it comes to meat, you may see some other labels:

  • Animal Welfare Approved. This means that the meat came from animals raised on pastures or ranges by independent farmers and handled in a humane fashion.
  • American Grassfed Association certified. This means the animals were never given antibiotics or hormones. The animals were raised unconfined on pastures, received a 100% forage diet and were born and raised on American family farms.
  • Humane Farm Animal Care certified. This means the animals had unlimited access to the outdoors, they weren’t confined, didn’t receive any antibiotics (unless sick) or hormones, and were handled in a humane fashion.

Is organic the same as “natural”?

No. The term “organic” refers to how food is processed in addition to the food itself.

Currently, no formal definition for the use of “natural” on food labels has been issued by the USDA or the Food and Drug Administration (FDA).

“Food manufacturers may use this term when food is free of synthetic preservatives and artificial sweeteners, additives, colors and flavors,” explains Smith. “Natural also can mean that meats are from livestock that weren’t given growth hormones or antibiotics and that produce wasn’t grown with pesticides or other synthetic crop enhancers.”

The only government-regulated use of the term “natural” involves meat and poultry. Meat labeled “natural” may contain no artificial ingredient or added color and be only minimally processed. The label must explain the use of the term.

But what if your food is “locally grown”? There’s no standard or regulation on what’s labeled “locally grown.” That bushel of strawberries could come from a farm down the street or a place more than 100 miles away.

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Are organic foods healthier?

Is organic food better for you?

“The health benefits that are linked to eating organic foods are increasing,” shares Smith. “However, it’s not certain that eating organic foods will make a difference in one’s health.”

Benefits and drawbacks of organic food

So, what are the benefits of eating organic food? And are there any cons you should be aware of?

Benefits of organic foods

When it comes to organic vs. nonorganic foods, organic foods offer:

  • Reduced exposure to pesticides and insecticides. This is a significant benefit of organic produce and grains.
  • Increased exposure to omega-3 fatty acids. Livestock fed through grazing usually have higher levels of omega-3 fatty acids, which provide healthy heart benefits.
  • Less exposure to cadmium. Studies have shown significantly lower levels of the toxic metal cadmium in organic grains. Cadmium is naturally found in soil and absorbed by plants.
  • Increased levels of vitamins, minerals, antioxidants and other beneficial micronutrients. Organically grown fruits, vegetables and grains have higher amounts of vitamin C, vitamin E and carotenoids. They also have higher amounts of the minerals calcium, potassium, phosphorus, magnesium and iron.
  • Less bacteria. Less exposure to bacteria in meat.
  • Less exposure to antibiotics. Eating organic meats leads to less exposure to antibiotics and growth hormones that have been used to treat livestock. These medicines may lead to antibiotic resistance and other problems in humans.

And when it comes to the environment, organic foods have an upside.

“Organic foods and organic farming are built on the principles of preserving soil and water quality and creating little or no pollution,” highlights Smith. “Not using chemical or sewage as fertilizer reduces toxic runoff into rivers, lakes and ultimately into drinking water.”

Additionally, animals are never given antibiotics or hormones and must have organic feed and safe, cage-free living conditions. Crop rotation, cover crops, dense planting and animal manures are methods used to provide nutrients to plants, as well as to control weeds and insects.

Drawbacks of eating organic food

The biggest downside to organic foods is higher production costs, which are passed on to consumers. That means that it costs more money to eat organic foods.

If you want to buy organic foods but can’t afford to do so for all of your produce, the nonprofit Environmental Working Group reports the following fruits and vegetables have the highest and lowest pesticide levels when not purchased organic. It may be best to buy organic options for produce with the highest pesticide level.

Highest pesticide levels:

  • Strawberries.
  • Spinach.
  • Kale, collards and mustard greens.
  • Nectarines.
  • Apples.
  • Grapes.
  • Peaches.
  • Pears.
  • Bell and hot peppers.
  • Cherries.
  • Blueberries.
  • Green beans.

Lowest pesticide levels:

  • Avocados.
  • Sweet corn.
  • Pineapple.
  • Onions.
  • Papaya.
  • Asparagus.
  • Mushrooms.
  • Cabbage.
  • Honeydew melon.
  • Kiwi.
  • Carrots.

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“If you can’t afford to purchase organic produce, washing and scrubbing fresh fruits and vegetables under running water can help remove bacteria and chemicals from the surface of fruits and vegetables,” shares Smith. “Peeling fruits and vegetables can also remove surface pesticides, but this also reduces nutrients.”

Bottom line?

It’s a personal choice whether you want to buy and eat organic foods. Consider how much it may cost you, what you can afford and how important any potential health benefits may be.

If you’re interested in organic foods, there are some ways you can reduce the costs. Try buying certain fruits and vegetables when they’re in season. You can also shop around at different grocery stores and farmers markets to see which has a better price. Look into joining a food co-op or a community-supported agriculture (CSA), both of which may offer lower prices for buying a membership or purchasing in bulk.

“All fruits and vegetables and lean animal sources are your friend whether conventional or organic,” stresses Smith. “Don’t get stuck on organic or conventional food — most importantly foster your health by enjoying an array of these foods each day.”

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