Organic: What does it really mean?

We’ve all been there … perusing the produce section to find ourselves deciding between the $3 mixed greens and the $4 organic mixed greens. They both look equally mixed, equally green, and equally fresh. So, which do you choose?  

“Organic.” It’s a term that’s become synonymous with “healthy,” “high-quality,” and “natural.” But is organic food healthier? Is it better for the environment? Should we avoid non-organic foods? Let’s break it down …

Image by StockSnap from Pixabay

What does organic mean?

Organic refers to the way food is farmed and processed. It’s governed by the National Organic Program under the USDA. Goals of the organic program include enhancing soil quality, conserving biodiversity, and promoting animal health and welfare. Standards are strict and regulate farming practices, livestock care, pest management, and food processing. See below.

  • Organic Produce
    • Grown in soil free of most synthetic pesticides and fertilizers
    • Free of genetically modified organisms (GMOs)
    • Not irradiated (a technology that removes insects and bacteria)
  • Organic Animal Products (meat, poultry, eggs, dairy)
    • Livestock have living conditions that support their natural behaviors (outdoor access and pasture grazing)
    • Livestock are only fed organic feed and forage
    • Free of antibiotic or hormone use
  • Organic Processed Foods
    • Made from organic ingredients. Exceptions include things like vitamins, baking soda, enzymes, and allowed synthetic substances  
    • Free of artificial preservatives, colors, or flavors

Is organic food healthier?

Nutritionally speaking – There is still room for debate. For produce, some studies show that organic foods are higher in phosphorous and antioxidants than conventional foods.1,2 However, some studies show no significant differences.3,4 For meat and dairy products, the high grazing/forage-based diets often contribute to higher omega-3 fatty acid (good fat) profiles in organic livestock.3,5

Unfortunately, the research in this field is quite heterogeneous (varied in methodologies).2-7 Things like climate, soil type, harvest time, grazing time, and storage processes all affect nutritional properties and make comparisons challenging. Not all organic farms are the same, and not all conventional farms are the same. So, it’s difficult to generalize the two. Also, while higher nutritional levels might be statistically significant in a study, they often aren’t clinically significant (medically relevant).2 The antioxidant disparities are modest, and the omega-3 profiles in meat and dairy products are a fraction of what you would get from a serving of fish, chia/flax seed, or walnuts.5

Bottom line: Organic food may come out on top as far as some nutrients. However, the body of research isn’t strong and the differences in nutrient levels are likely trivial. Just eat your fruits and vegetables. 

Health outcome speaking – There’s no conclusive evidence that links organic food to health benefits or disease protection.3,8-12 Studies have investigated the risk of obesity, fertility, allergies, and various chronic diseases. While diets rich in organic food show promising results, the overall body of evidence is weak due to lack of human trials and long-term studies. There is research, however, that shows that consumers who purchase organic food are (1) more health-conscious, (2) wealthier, and (3) have higher levels of education – all of which considerably affect health status. 8,10-12

Bottom line: The jury is still out on any definitive differences in health outcomes. However, you can rest assured there’s strong evidence that diets high in plant-based foods, regardless of farming method, improve our health. Just eat your fruits and vegetables. 

What about growth hormones and antibiotics in conventional livestock?

Photo by Steyn Viljoen from Pexels

Hormones – Growth hormones are used to increase animal growth rates and feeding efficiency. In the U.S., hormones are only used for beef and sheep. Use in dairy cows, pigs, and poultry is illegal (FYI any “hormone-free” chicken is a marketing gimmick). They’re heavily regulated by the FDA to ensure safety for the animals, for us, and for the environment.13  Growth hormones reduce the amount of cattle, land, manure, feed, water, and energy needed for meat production – this helps reduce food cost and overall greenhouse gas emissions (GHG).14 As far as residual hormones in our food? The amount found in cattle is thousands of times less than what’s naturally occurring in our body, and levels found in soy, tofu, pinto beans and more.15

Antibiotics – Antibiotics were once allowed to be used on livestock as an alternative way to promote growth and improve feed efficiency. This practice was highly criticized due to concerns of residual antibiotics in food and possible microbial resistance. In 2013, the FDA started phasing out the use of antibiotics for production purposes and increased mandatory veterinarian oversight.16 By 2017, when its regulations went into effect, antibiotic sales decreased dramatically.17 Many farms still use antibiotics to treat sick animals and stop the spread of disease. Treated animals must undergo a specific withdrawal period before they can be used for slaughter to prevent any antibiotic residue in food. To ensure compliance, animal products are tested under the National Residue Program (who found a violation rate of <0.5% in 2019).

Bottom line: Growth hormones are generally less of a cause for concern than antibiotics. Each farm is different as far as its protocol for sick animals and veterinarian oversight. While there are federal regulations and testing measures in place to ensure food safety, organic animal products offer consumers assurance of no residual hormones or antibiotics.

What about “toxic” pesticides?

We’ve all seen it. Homegirl at brunch refuses non-organic eggs to avoid toxins, as she enjoys her coffee (toxin) and bottomless mimosas (toxin).

Image from thoughtcapism.com

Pesticides are used to prevent and kill insects, weeds, fungus, and disease. As 20-40% of our global crop production is lost to pests each year, pesticides are essential to maintain a safe, sustainable, and affordable food system.18 Both conventional and organic farms use pesticides. Organic farms can use natural pesticides, but sometimes require synthetic pesticides too. Conventional farms can use synthetic pesticides, but may choose to use natural ones or none at all. Every farm is different. 

Synthetic vs. Natural – which is better? It’s complicated. First, let’s be clear about one thing: both synthetic and natural pesticides are toxic at some level. The term “cide” is Latin for killer. All pesticides are used with caution and are applied in purposeful and safe quantities. Just because a pesticide is natural, doesn’t make it any less toxic (Rotenone is a good example). Natural pesticides are, however, less “persistent” and breakdown much faster than synthetic pesticides. While this trait is desirable from an environmental perspective, it also means that repeated doses (and a higher overall volume) are sometimes necessary to fight persistent pests.19 Sometimes a synthetic pesticide may better target specific bugs, thereby requiring a smaller dose. Farmers must consider the pros and cons of each type of pesticide based on their unique needs.  

The good news? Pesticides are rigorously tested for years before they’re used. Under the Food Quality Protection Act, the Environmental Protection Agency takes significant precautions to regulate pesticides and ensure the food we eat is safe. Additionally, detected pesticide residue on food is far below the chronic reference dose levels (see next section). Still concerned? Give your produce and extra rinse with water before eating.

Bottom line: Pesticides are a vital part of our food system. Both organic and conventional farms use pesticides. Natural and synthetic pesticides are both toxic at a certain level, and have unique benefits and drawbacks. Pesticide residue found on food is far below acceptable tolerance levels. Just rinse your fruits and vegetables

What about the “Dirty Dozen”?

The Dirty Dozen is a list of 12 non-organic foods that are ranked based on levels of pesticide residue. It’s published annually by the Environmental Working Group (EWG), an NGO not to be confused with the federal Environmental Protection Agency. The EWG is highly criticized by the science community for its fear-based messaging, spread of misinformation, lack of scientific credibility, and funding from the organic industry. I won’t go into all the details, but you can read more about it from AG Daily, Forbes, or the Journal of Toxicology.

The Dirty Dozen is based on absolute values of detected pesticide residue – which really tells us nothing without a reference point. What the EWG fails to mention, however, is that these residue values are hundreds to thousands of times below the chronic reference dose levels.20,21 Want to play a fun game? Visit safefruitsandveggies.com to calculate the number of servings you can safely eat in a day (even with the highest pesticide level).

The EWG’s Dirty Dozen list is not only misleading, but its fear-based messaging hurts non-organic farmers and folks who cannot afford organic food.22 If price keeps consumers from purchasing organic produce, and fear keeps them from purchasing conventional produce, we have a problem. When only 1 in 10 Americans eat enough fruits and vegetables, all fresh produce should be encouraged without unnecessary confusion or fear. 

Bottom line: In my personal and professional opinion, the Dirty Dozen is garbage. It shouldn’t affect your decision to eat organic food or not. Just eat your fruits and vegetables.

Is organic food better for the environment?

Short answer? Yes. Long answer? It’s complicated.

Image by Franz Bachinger from Pixabay

Short answer: Organic farming encourages sustainable ecological practices like crop rotation, foraging, and restricted pesticide use. These methods help conserve biodiversity, improve soil health, and reduce GHG.23,24

Long answer: Organic’s lower crop yields, restrictions on pesticides, and resistance to biotechnology may also pose harmful effects on the environment and sustainable eating efforts. Because organic farms often produce less food per acre than conventional farms, there is a reliance on more land use and exportation of foods, which ultimately increases GHG emissions.25 Without herbicides, many organic farms rely on tilling to control weeds. Tilling is a considerably energy-consuming, polluting, and an expensive weed controlling process.26 Additionally, organic foods are not irradiated. This is unfortunate because irradiation is safe, destroys harmful bacteria, improves shelf-life, and reduces spoilage and food waste.27,28  As previously mentioned, the use of growth hormones in conventional beef reduces the number of cattle per acre, decreases the cost of meat, and cuts GHG.14 Lastly, the organic restrictions on GMOs undermine the movement toward a more sustainable food system. First and foremost, GMOs are safe despite public skepticism (another article for another day). GMOs increase crop yield, reduce land use, improve farmers’ profit, lower the cost of food, and help the fight against hunger and malnutrition.29-31 A side perk? GMOs considerably reduce pesticide use as well.30

Bottom line: It’s complicated. On a small scale, the direct effects of organic farming practices fare better for the environment. On a larger scale, however, the indirect effects of organic restrictions may be more energy-consuming and less sustainable. When possible, buy local and support your community farms.

My thoughts

Organic vs. conventional? It shouldn’t be a dichotomy. There is no right or wrong answer. You don’t have to choose sides (phew). Agricultural practices vary considerably by farm. Small-scale conventional farms may embrace the spirit of organic farming practices without the expensive certification. Large-scale organic farms may value profit over ecological sustainability.

Organic vs. conventional isn’t a question of health or quality, but a choice of unique food systems. How fortunate and privileged we are to be so selective in our food options!  It’s fantastic that many of us care about our food’s sourcing and processing. We should all strive to be better stewards of our health and environment. Talk with your grocer about where their food comes from. Ask your local farmer about how they grow their food. Join a CSA or Food Co-op.

I hope this article shines light upon common misconceptions and empowers you as a more informed consumer. As I’ve said before, choose the foods that best fit into your lifestyle, your nutritional needs, and your individual health goals.

~Megan

P.S. If you’re interested in learning more about agricultural myth busting and seeing what modern farming really looks like, follow Farm Babe! If you’re interested in learning more about food science and safety myth busting, follow Food Science Babe!


References

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  2. Are Organic Foods Safer or Healthier Than Conventional Alternatives? Annals of Internal Medicine. 2012;157(5):348-366.
  3. Forman J, Silverstein J. Organic Foods: Health and Environmental Advantages and Disadvantages. Pediatrics. 2012;130.  
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  14. Beef Cattle Research Council. Q&A On Conventional Production Of Canadian Beef. October, 2018. http://www.beefresearch.ca/blog/qa-on-conventional-production-of-canadian-beef/
  15. Loy, Dan. Iowa State University. Understanding Hormone Use in Beef Cattle. March, 2011. http://www.iowabeefcenter.org/information/IBC48.pdf
  16. U.S. FDA. FDA’s Strategy on Antimicrobial Resistance – Questions and Answers. December, 2013. https://www.fda.gov/regulatory-information/search-fda-guidance-documents/fdas-strategy-antimicrobial-resistance-questions-and-answers
  17. Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy. FDA reports major drop in antibiotics for food animals. December, 2018. https://www.cidrap.umn.edu/news-perspective/2018/12/fda-reports-major-drop-antibiotics-food-animals#:~:text=Under%20Guidance%20for%20Industry%20(GFI,turkeys%2C%20and%20other%20food%20animals.
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