What Does Organic Mean?
Updated: Aug 28
We all know that we should aim to eat healthier but what does that mean? I’m sure you’ve heard that you should be eating smaller portions, avoiding GMOs, avoiding carbs, or buying only organic foods. In this post I’d like to take a deeper look into that last one. Despite the fancy labels and media’s love for organic foods, I think the majority of people don’t know what organic foods actually are. We do know that they are more expensive. You may have heard about some studies that have claimed organic foods do not actually offer any more nutritional value than non-organic. (1) I’m sure you are asking yourself, if they are more expensive and studies are showing that they are not more nutritious, why should we buy organic foods? Before we get to that, let’s first understand what it means for a food to be labeled “organic”.
According to the USDA (United States Department of Agriculture), certified organic foods are grown and processed according to federal guidelines addressing, among many factors, soil quality, animal raising practices, pest and weed control, and use of additives. Organic producers rely on natural substances and physical, mechanical, or biologically based farming methods to the fullest extent possible. In other words, if a food has the “USDA organic” or “certified organic” seal the item should have a food item list that contains 95% or more only organic products, which means it’s free of substances such as synthetic pesticides, chemical dyes, or fertilizers. This also means that the food will not have been processed by using industrial solvents, irradiation, or genetic engineering. The remaining 5% can be foods processed with additives that have been approved by the USDA, which can be found here.
You may also see a “100% organic” seal on some products. One hundred percent organic means the product contains 100% organic ingredients or in the case of fruits and vegetables, were raised using only certified organic processes. This can also be the case for other farm products such as flour or grains. In order for meat to be labeled organic, the animals are required to be raised in living conditions accommodating their natural behaviors, fed 100% organic feed and forage, and must not be administered antibiotics or hormones.
Now that we understand what it means for a product to be labeled as organic, let’s try to understand the benefits. The study we referenced earlier concluded that organic foods have no substantial vitamin or mineral advantages over their non-organic counterparts. While this may be true, this doesn’t consider the harmful pesticides and antibiotic resistant bacteria these foods may expose you to. However, in 2018 another study found that organic foods actually tasted better and contained higher amounts of minerals such as magnesium and iron, contained more vitamin C, the meats were leaner and contained more beneficial polyunsaturated fats, and contained no traces of pesticide residue. (2) If you are to believe organic foods do not offer more nutritional value keep in mind nutritional value has next to nothing to do with the organic seal. This leads us to our next point, the impact on the environment. Organically grown and processed foods encourage more environmentally friendly farming and production practices, growing food without harmful pesticides and fertilizers, and cycling natural resources. While this increases the volatility of crops, it also allows farms to focus on sustainability instead of their yield.
The price of organic foods is likely the determining factor for many people who wish to buy them. The reason for their premium price can be boiled down to two major culprits; supply and demand and it’s more expensive to grow and produce organic foods. While this is certainly the case now, it doesn’t always have to be. Buying organic foods shows the corporations that is where we want to spend our money and can encourage them to change their practices over time. We can also support our local growers by going to farmer’s markets or local food co-ops where the price of organic foods is often lower than the supermarket and sometimes negotiable.
I hope this article has given you some insight into the “certified organic” seal and what it actually means for the food your purchasing. Whether or not you should buy organic foods is completely up to you, your budget, and your expectations for those foods. If your goal is solely to eat healthier foods at the cheapest price, then organic might not be the option for you. If you’re concerned with your, or the farmers’, exposure to harmful pesticides and fertilizers, then organic food will drastically reduce that exposure. If you’re concerned with the environmental sustainability of farms, buying organic foods is the correct option. Whatever you decide to do with your money and what you choose to buy is your decision, but I hope we have given you more to think about before making that purchase.