Organic foods used to be found only in health stores, but there is probably an organic section in the supermarket that you shop in. What is the real difference between organic and traditionally grown foods? In modern supermarkets, the product all looks firm, shiny, and healthy. Which should you choose?
What Does Organic Mean?
The word “organic” tells you something about the way a food producer raises and processes their products. Farmers who grow organic produce use different methods. They don’t use conventional methods to fertilize and control weeds. Organic farming is designed to reduce pesticides, and encourage soil and water conservation.
Who Regulates Organic?
The U.S. Department of Agriculture has a rigorous and somewhat expensive certification program for organic food producers. The standards regulate how foods are grown, processed, and handled. Once certified, a food producer can put the USDA Organic label on what it sells. Chemical fertilizers, synthetic substances, irradiation, sewage sludge, and genetically modified organisms are prohibited. Organic meat must be from animals fed 100% organic feed.
Are There Other Reasons to Eat Organic Besides Health?
People who eat organic foods often say that they taste better, but organic farming is about safety for the environment. Synthetic pesticides become less effective over time as pest populations develop resistance to them. As time goes on the pest population becomes stronger, and more pesticide and stronger pesticides are needed which build up in the soil. Arsenic and DDT were banned long ago, but their residue remains and they still show up in our food.
Organic farmers control pests with rich, healthy soil and strong plants. Meat from animals raised on organic ranches are allowed to grow at their own natural pace without the influence of synthetic growth hormones or antibiotics, both of which raise serious health questions.
Is Organic the Same as Natural?
The Mayo Clinic advises us not confuse ‘organic’ with ‘natural’ on labels. They don’t mean the same thing. A label that says it’s contents are ‘natural’, ‘all natural’, or ‘hormone-free has to be truthful, but those products are not held up to the same rigorous standards as organic foods.
Is There a Nutritional Difference?
Are organic foods more nutritious? Part of the trouble with the word organic is that organic farming covers everything from small sustainable, biodynamic farms to large industrial operations that just barely make it into the organic farming category, so there is a wide variety in the quality of nutrition in organic foods. Large organic farms are monoculture and raise food on an industrial scale. In contrast, small biodynamic farms grow a large array of different vegetables and fruits, and work to build up soil from year to year. When animals are raised, their well being is considered, and they are fed the grass diet they would enjoy in the wild. The levels of common nutrients like vitamins C and E are similar between conventional and organic foods, but there are significantly higher levels of phenols and other cancer-fighting nutrients.
The lack of pesticides is the most commonly cited reason for eating organic. Pesticides are designed to kill things. Studies show that pesticides build up at a much slower rate in the bodies of people who eat organic. This is especially important for children and pregnant women. Animals that are raised organic show significantly fewer fatty acids and more omega-3 oils. Antibiotic resistant bacteria occur 33% less frequently.
In the end, when you buy organic you can count on food that is somewhat more nutritious, has measurably fewer pesticides, and is easier on the environment.