Since the National Organic Standards from the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) went into effect a decade ago, shopping for organic foods has become more mainstream. The regulations created an official definition for what constitutes an organic food, ensuring that when you buy something with the label, you’re getting what you pay for. Though organic foods still represent a fraction of the total food supply, nearly five million acres of U.S. farmland have gone organic, and sales are on the rise.
The USDA organic seal indicates that the foods were grown and processed according to clear criteria, as verified by private or state organizations. In short, the use of nearly all conventional pesticides, petroleum-based fertilizers, sewage sludge, genetic modification and irradiation is banned. Animals raised organically consume 100 percent organic feed, without antibiotics, growth hormones or animal byproducts. Organic regulations also prohibit or severely restrict the use of various food ingredients, including artificial sweeteners, partially hydrogenated oils and monosodium glutamate, also known as MSG.
Still, confusion reigns about organic foods. Is an organic carrot really healthier, safer, better for the environment? Is it worth the extra cost?
Confusion #1: Organic foods have no pesticide residues. The organic seal does not mean “pesticide-free. Botanical pesticides—those derived from plants—are a mainstay of organic production, and their residues may end up in the final product. Several synthetic substances are also approved. Moreover, some contamination of organic crops by unapproved synthetic pesticides is unavoidable because the chemicals can drift from neighboring farms onto organic fields.
Still, according to the USDA, organic produce has significantly fewer pesticide residues than conventional produce—though residues on both organic and nonorganic foods are not supposed to exceed thresholds set by the government.
Pesticides pose a known danger to farm workers, as well as to the environment. But there’s no clear evidence that low-level pesticide residues on food, whether synthetic or plant-derived, harm consumers. Keep in mind also that more than 99 percent of the pesticides people are exposed to through the foods they eat are produced naturally by plants, and their effects on human health, for good or bad, are largely unknown.
Confusion #2: Organic foods are more nutritious. Though many people think so, the data so far do not support this. Some studies have found higher levels of some nutrients(including vitamin C and various minerals), as well as phytochemicals, in organic foods—but others have found little or no difference. Nutrient levels depend on many factors besides farming method—including the plant variety, soil conditions, climate, when the plant is harvested and how it’s processed and stored; for dairy and meat, they are determined by what the animals eat (which can vary even in organic production), the breed, the season and other factors.
Two systematic reviews of studies by British researchers, published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition in 2009 and 2010, concluded that there is no evidence of major differences between organic and conventional foods, either in nutritional content or nutrition-related health effects.
Confusion #3: Organic foods are less likely to harbor bacteria that can make you sick. Organic and non-organic foods must both meet government safety requirements. But no foods are entirely risk-free, and just like conventional foods, organic foods can be contaminated with Salmonella, E. coli and other harmful bacteria during growing, handling and processing. In testing by Consumer Reports in 2010, for example, 57 percent of store-brand organic chickens harbored Campylobacter, and both organic and non-organic farms have been implicated in recent foodborne illness outbreaks. You must handle organic foods the same way you do conventional foods, which means washing organic produce, cooking organic poultry and meat to the proper temperature and not letting the juices from raw organic meats come into contact with other foods.
Antibiotics are widely used in conventional livestock production to increase growth and prevent illness in cattle, while growth hormones are used on some industrial dairy farms to increase milk production. Neither can be used in organic products.
Confusion #4: Organic meat and poultry production is more humane. It can be in some ways, but organic is not a "humane" claim. A much-applauded USDA ruling in 2010 requires that organic dairy and beef animals pasture-graze at least four months of the year and have access to pasture year-round, thus ensuring that they have freedom of movement in a more natural habitat and are not continuously confined in feedlots, as in industrial farm operations. For other animals, however, the length of time outdoors and quality of the space are not specified. Organic hens, for example, are not caged and must have access to the outdoors—but there is no stipulation that they actually go outside or that the space be anything more than a small concrete yard. In addition, forced molting and debeaking are still permitted. What’s more, there is no requirement that the animals be slaughtered more humanely.
Confusion #5: Organic standards cover seafood. Not yet. The USDA proposed organic standards for seafood in late 2008, but final rules have not been approved. The proposalincludes provisions for how farmed fish can be raised and what they can be fed, but, ironically, wild fish would not carry an organic seal because their diets and environments cannot be controlled. In the meantime, be wary of “organic” labels on farmed salmon and other seafood—there’s no guarantee they were raised on organic feed or meet other organic standards, or that they are free of PCBs and other contaminants. Other countries certify farmed seafood, but their standards are not uniform, so it’s difficult to know what you’re getting.
Confusion #6: Organic snacks and sweets have fewer calories and are better for you. Don’t assume this. In a 2010 study from the University of Michigan, participantsthought that organic cookies had fewer calories than non-organic—and thus that they could eat more of them. But organic cookies, chips, crackers, ice cream and candy are often just as sugary, salty and caloric. Though they have no partially hydrogenated oils (a source of unhealthful trans fat), many organic snacks and sweets have just as much—or more—saturated fat. Eat too much of any junk food and you can gain weight, clog your arteries and increase your risk of diabetes and other illnesses.
Confusion #7: If there’s no USDA seal, the food is not organic. Not all organic farmers and producers choose to go through the voluntary certification process, which is costly and time consuming, but nevertheless may follow organic practices. If you shop at a local farmers’ market, ask how the food was grown or raised. It may meet—perhaps even exceed—the national organic standards.
Though the risks of minuscule amounts of pesticides from food are unclear, you may wish to minimize exposure, especially in children, who are more vulnerable to pesticide toxicity. The nonprofit Environmental Working Group ranks fruits and vegetables by their pesticide levels. Here is its latest list.
When done responsibly, organic production is better, overall, for the environment. Organic farmers emphasize sustainable methods—such as the use of crop rotation, mixed plantings and beneficial insects—to manage weeds and pests and preserve soil quality and plant biodiversity. Organic farming consumes less fossil fuel, conserves water and is less polluting to land, water and air. It’s also less likely to endanger farm workers and wildlife. “The primary goal of organic agriculture is to optimize the health and productivity of interdependent communities of soil life, plants, animals and people,” according to the USDA’s definition.
On the other hand, organic farming tends to be less efficient (it has lower yields per acre) and thus, at present, is not a feasible way to feed the world. And an increasing number of organic operations are moving away from the traditional ideals of organic farming and involve high water use, long-distance shipping and heavy food processing, all of which have a negative environmental impact. Keep in mind, you can help support a greener planet simply by eating less meat and fewer processed and packaged foods—organic or not.
The term organic is only a production term—it says nothing about the quality, safety or nutritional value of foods. Don’t confuse organic with “grass-fed” (organically raised cattle can be grain-finished), “local” or other eco-labels, which mean different things. Organic is not a “humane” claim either (instead, look for “Animal Welfare Approved”). Many organic operations today are, in fact, more similar to industrial factory farming than to the pastoral scenes you may imagine.
The best reason to buy organic foods, if you can afford their higher price, is to support a more sustainable agriculture system that better protects the land and farm workers. Often, the foods are fresher, and you may prefer their taste. But in the ongoing debate over organic versus conventional, don’t lose sight of this fact: Eating fruits and vegetables is the key to a healthy diet, no matter how they are grown.