“Organic”. That means “healthy”, right? Well, kind of. You might avoid a lot of chemicals, which is great… but think twice before you use the “organic” label to justify that organic toaster pastry.
Organic food consumption is on the rise.
- More than half of Canadian households buy it.
- In the U.S., its sales have increased ~20% each year since 1990.
- Sales of it worldwide increased from $23 billion in 2002 to $40 billion in 2006.
- People are willing to pay 40% more for it.
Wow. Organic food must be pretty special.
What is organic food and where does it come from?
The official definition of “organic”:
“Noting or pertaining to a class of chemical compounds that formerly comprised only those existing in or derived from plants or animals, but that now includes all other compounds of carbon.”
Ummm… kay. Good luck using that definition when deciding between organic and conventional peaches.
How Old Organic McDonald has to run his farm
The U.S. Organic Foods Production Act of 1990 established national standards for organically grown foods.
In 2002, the rules went into effect for those farms selling more than $5,000/year of organic products. Farms deriving less than $5,000/year are exempt from certification.
To earn the label of “organic” in the U.S., farmers must:
- have a plan describing their operations
- maintain records concerning the production and handling of agricultural products
- submit to audits conducted by accredited certifying agents
- have buffer zones to prevent the unintended application of a prohibited substance to organic land (though there are no specified buffer zone dimensions)
- use organic seeds when available
- minimize soil erosion; implement crop rotations; and prevent contamination of crops, soil and water by plant and animal nutrients, pathogenic organisms, heavy metals or residues of prohibited substances
- feed animals with organic feed for at least 1 year
- give animals access to the outdoors
- feed and build soil matter with natural fertilizer
- use insect predators, mating disruption, traps and barriers to protect crops from pests and disease
- make use of crop rotation, mechanical tillage and hand-weeding, as well as cover crops, mulches, flame weeding and other management methods to control weed growth
Farmers must NOT:
- treat animals with antibiotics, growth hormones, or feed made from animal byproducts
- apply prohibited substances to their land for at least three years prior to harvest
- use irradiation or genetic engineering
- fertilize with sewage sludge
In 2004, over 400 chemicals were routinely used in conventional farming for weed and pest control. None of these synthetic pesticides are allowed under organic standards.
U.S. regulations also require that organic foods are grown without growth hormones, antibiotics, modern genetic engineering, chemical fertilizers or sewage sludge.
What to expect with the organic label
“Organic” does not mean animals are grass-fed, humanely treated or free to roam pastures.
Moreover, “organic” doesn’t necessarily mean healthy, low-fat, low-sugar nor unprocessed food.
There are three standardized organic labels defined below, but countless other label claims exist. Here is the label lingo to look for:
- “100% organic”: Product must contain 100 percent organic ingredients.
- “Organic”: At least 95 percent of ingredients are organically produced.
- “Made with Organic ingredients”: At least 70 percent of ingredients are organic. The remaining 30 percent must come from the USDA’s approved list.
- “Free-range” or “Free-roaming”
- “Natural or “All natural”
- “Organic seafood”
- “Antibiotic free”
- “Certified humane raised and handled”
- “Fair-trade certified”
- “Natural food certifiers”
On the fence labels
- “No antibiotics administered” or “Raised without antibiotics”
- “Hormone-free” or “No hormones administered”
- “No additives”
- “Seafood safe”
If in doubt about labeling, check the regulations in your area.
Organic food and health
Does organic = healthy?
We have organic:
- Ice cream
- TV dinners
- Breakfast cereals
While buying these foods may be a better option for the planet, it may not be for our health.
An organic diet can reduce the amount of toxic chemicals consumed and increase the vitamin, mineral and fatty acid content of the food.
But what about organic high fructose corn syrup? Organic is not synonymous with healthy.
Manufacturers know that “organic” is a shortcut people use when searching out healthy food.
Many people have linked health, fresh, natural, and sustainable with the word organic. The USDA doesn’t regulate the health of our food. Buying organic simply means that the company has met accreditation criteria (see above). Even organic unhealthy food is still unhealthy food.
Yes, that’s right… organic lollipops. Pretty much the same as a head of broccoli isn’t it? Not.
A lower intake of chemicals is likely better for our health.
Exposure to many chemicals and pesticides increases our risk of chronic diseases, including various types of cancer, birth defects, fertility alterations, Parkinson’s disease, insulin resistance, type 2 and gestational diabetes. Pesticide residues have been ranked among the top three environmental cancer risks by government authorities.
Still, the USDA does not claim that organically produced food is safer or more nutritious than traditionally produced foods.
What about the impact of organic on the health of the planet?
Organic agriculture promotes sustainability, conserves energy, enhances biodiversity, minimizes nutrient losses, boosts soil productivity, reduces pollution of groundwater, and sequesters carbon in the soil. Organic food systems have resulted in higher a level of carbon, nitrogen, phosphorus, calcium, and potassium in the soil. This is attributed to years of manure application and cover crops.
Humane animal treatment is not mandated by organic standards.
“Cage-free,” “free-range,” and other related terms aren’t synonymous with humane treatment. Organic animals generally receive the same treatment as conventional animals.
Studies have revealed that the health and welfare of organic animal herds are the same as or slightly better than conventional herds. Organic animals receive preventive medicine, such as vaccinations, only when absolutely necessary.
If an animal gets a vaccination, its meat and/or secretions cannot be sold as organic. Antibiotics which help to ward of bacteria and other organisms cannot be used on products being sold as organic.
Nutrient content of foods
Statistics indicate that levels of trace minerals in fruit and vegetables fell by nearly 76% between 1940 and 1991.
One review article compared organic and conventional foods with no major differences in nutrient levels being observed between foods in some cases. Still, other cases had varied findings and did not permit definitive conclusions.
Another review found that organic crops contained more vitamin C, iron, magnesium and phosphorus than conventional crops. Other results from review articles were variable and could not provide conclusive evidence conveying an effect of fertilizer type on nutrient content in organic foods.
In the last several years, controlled studies have shown that organic production methods lead to increased nutrients and antioxidants in food.
Furthermore, the fatty acid profile in meat from organically raised cows and pigs is favorable to conventional, along with the cows milk output. The nutrient levels in chicken meat have been variable.
Organic apples, carrots, broccoli, potatoes have all been rated as sweeter, firmer, and/or moister than conventional varieties.
Studies have reported that organic produce has better storage and a longer shelf life than conventional produce. Organic whole grain bread was reported as being dryer than conventional whole grain bread. Minimal differences in the taste and smell of meat from free-range pigs have been found.
Downfalls of organic
Most people think they’re doing a good thing for themselves and the environment when buying and eating organic.
Fossil fuel use
Yet while organic farmers may tout the environmental benefits of food produced without pesticides, the amount of greenhouse gases emitted through shipping is about the same as with non-organic food.
Organic foods generally cost more, and some argue that eating them increases our exposure to biological contaminants like manure, mycotoxins and bacteria. Yet research has determined that there is no evidence that organic foods may be more susceptible to microbial contamination than conventional foods.
Another criticism of organic agriculture is that it can’t produce enough food.
Some experts assert that it’ll condemn more people to hunger, malnutrition and starvation because of a lower crop yield and social viability.
Other experts disagree with this and claim hunger is a consequence of poverty and landlessness, not a lower yield from organic farming.
For extra credit
Any and every food can be organic. (For instance, you can even buy organic wine.) “Organic” just means that it’s grown in pesticide free soil or raised on pesticide free feed.
Organic products cost more because they are often more labor-intensive and the farmers do not receive the subsidies that larger companies obtain.
Want to know more about labels? Check out the virtual kitchen.
A synthetic material can be defined as a substance that is formulated or manufactured by a chemical process or by a process that chemically changes a substance extracted from a naturally occurring plant, animal, or mineral source.
Summary & recommendations
- Organic fruits and vegetables contain fewer chemicals than conventional varieties and most chemicals exert effects on a dose-related basis (in other words, the more chemicals, the stronger the effects)
- Some animals raised organically have the potential for bacterial contamination since they are not treated with antibiotics
- In some cases, organic foods may have higher levels of nutrients
- There may be increased microbiological hazards from organic foods
- Consider what you’re getting, the price you’re paying, the taste, and your priorities
- Consider where you’re shopping – small farms might not be certified organic, yet they may still not use pesticides
If you’re looking for healthy food, the “organic” short cut doesn’t work. Look for new definitions of healthy food, such as:
- Organically grown or raised
- As close to its natural state as possible (in other words, whole chicken = good, chicken nuggets = not so good)
- A diet low in processed ingredients, full of plant-based foods, legumes, and lean meats
- Locally raised and locally sold food that’s also grown/raised organically; by definition, this food is also provided seasonally
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