Organic Foods: to Buy or Not to Buy?
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Organic Foods: to Buy or Not to Buy?

Image for organic foods article So there you are. Standing in the produce section at your local grocery store. On your left is a large stack of deep green, freshly misted broccoli. On your right is a second stack, just as lovely as the first. But the second stack is organic and almost twice the price. Your pocketbook says buy the first, but your desire to provide healthful, nutritious food for your family says buy the second. Is there really a difference between the two? And is it worth it?

Conventional vs. Organic: What’s the Difference?

The difference between organic and conventional food begins with the production process. Conventional farmers have the option to use things like pesticides, fertilizers containing synthetic ingredients, sewage sludge (the semi-solid waste byproduct from municipal sewage treatment plants), or bioengineering to help produce their crops. Organic farmers, on the other hand, use none of these things. Instead, they use strategies like crop rotation, mulching, and manure to help grow their products.

This difference applies equally to plant and animal products. For example, animals used to produce organic products, such as meat, poultry, eggs, and dairy products are given no antibiotics or growth hormones. The following table lists the differences between conventional and organic farming:

Conventional Versus Organic Farming
ConventionalOrganic
Use chemical fertilizers to promote plant growthApply natural fertilizers, such as manure or compost to feed the soil and plants
Apply insecticides to reduce pests and diseaseUse beneficial insects (insects that eat other insects) and birds to reduce pests and disease
May use antibiotics, growth hormones, and medications to promote growth and prevent diseaseGive animals organic feed; rely on preventive measures, rotational grazing, a balanced diet, and clean housing to reduce disease

How Can I Be Certain My Organic Food Is Really Organic?

Until recently, it was difficult to know what the term “organic” meant unless you were familiar with complicated sets of rules set by individual states and private institutions. However, in October 2002, the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) implemented national organic standards for agricultural products. These standards regulate the way all foods bearing the USDA organic label are grown, handled, and processed. The only exception to these standards is small organic farmers who sell less than $5,000 a year in organic foods.

These new standards mean that organic products, from anywhere in the country, now fall into four clear categories. Only two categories are allowed to display the USDA organic label. The following table lists these categories and outlines clearly what products making these claims may and may not contain.

USDA Organic Food Labeling Requirements
100% organic products (This product may display the USDA organic seal.)Must contain 100% organically produced ingredients, not including added water and salt.
Organic products (This product may display the USDA organic seal.)Must contain at least 95% organic ingredients, not including added water and salt. Must not contain sulfites. May contain up to 5% of non-organically produced agricultural ingredients not commercially available in organic form or other substances.
Made with organic ingredients (or similar statement; this product may not display the USDA organic seal.)Must contain at least 70% organic ingredients, not including added water and salt. Must not contain added sulfites; except that wine may contain small amounts of sulfur dioxide. May contain up to 30% of non-organically produced agricultural ingredients or other substances, including yeast.
Made with some organic ingredients (This product may not display the USDA organic seal.)May contain at least 70% organic ingredients, not including added salt or water. May contain over 30% of non-organically produced agricultural ingredients or other substances.

People who sell or label a product as organic when they know it does not meet USDA standards can be fined up to $10,000 for per violation.

Going Organic

People who choose to “go organic” do so for many more reasons than just the price of broccoli. Here’s a list of things you may want to keep in mind while making up your own mind.

Nutrition

The USDA does not claim that organic food is any better, or any less nutritious than food produced by conventional methods. The only difference between organic foods and conventionally produced foods is the way they are grown, handled, and processed.

Quality and Appearance

Organic foods must meet the same standards of quality and safety as conventionally produced food. However, you may notice organic foods look less perfect (odd shapes, varying colors, smaller sizes) than conventionally produced foods. You may also notice that organic fruits and vegetables spoil slightly faster. This is because conventionally produced foods are often selected for their perfect appearance and then treated with waxes or preservatives to prolong their shelf life.

Pesticides

Some people buy organic foods as a way of avoiding exposure to the pesticides conventional farmers use to protect their crops from molds, insects, and disease, and this may be a factor in your decision making. However, most experts agree that the small amounts of residual pesticides found on conventionally grown produce poses a very small health risk to humans, and that the health benefits of eating fresh produce far outweigh any risks.

Environment

Many people opt for organic products because they support the goal of organic farming, which is to benefit the environment by reducing pollution and conserving soil and water.

Cost

Cost is often a consideration when making the decision to purchase organic products. Most organic products do cost more than their conventionally produced counterparts. This is because the practices used to produce them are, in many cases, more expensive than those used to produce conventional products.

Taste

Some people claim to be able to taste the difference between organic and nonorganic foods. Others say they cannot. Taste is a personal and very subjective consideration.

Buying Tips

In the end, deciding whether buying organic is right for you will be a highly personal decision. Here are some additional buying tips to keep in mind:

  • In order to ensure the highest quality, buy your produce in season.
  • Try to buy your produce on the day it’s delivered. Ask your grocer what day new produce arrives.
  • Read food labels carefully. Even organic foods can be high in sugar, salt, fat, or calories.
  • Don’t confuse natural with organic. These terms are not interchangeable, nor are other common terms like free-range or hormone free. Only foods clearly labeled organic have met USDA organic standards.
  • Wash all produce thoroughly before eating it.
  • If you’re concerned about pesticides, try peeling your produce, or trimming the outer leaves so you can wash it thoroughly. Trim fat from meat and the skin of poultry and fish as some pesticides may collect there as well.

RESOURCES:

The National Organic Program
http://www.ams.usda.gov/nop

US Department of Agriculture
http://www.usda.gov

CANADIAN RESOURCES:

Canadian Council on Food and Nutrition
www.ccfn.ca

Healthy Canadians
http://www.healthycanadians.gc.ca

References

Organic foods: new options with growing differences. The Mayo Clinic website. Available at: http://www.mayoclinic.com/invoke.cfm?objectid=039DC948-6412-41AE-A46232789E371DC5. Accessed July 29, 2003.

Organic food standards and labels: The facts. The National Organic Program website. Available at: http://www.ams.usda.gov/nop/consumers/brochure.html. March 16, 2008.

Organic production and organic food: information access tools. U.S. Department of Agriculture website. Available at: http://www.nal.usda.gov/afsic/pubs/ofp/ofp.shtml. Accessed March 16, 2008.

Veneman marks implementation of USDA national organic standards. US Department of Agriculture website. Available at: http://www.usda.gov/news/releases/2002/10/0453.htm. Accessed September 12, 2003.



Last reviewed March 2008 by Maria Adams, MS, MPH, RD

Please be aware that this information is provided to supplement the care provided by your physician. It is neither intended nor implied to be a substitute for professional medical advice. CALL YOUR HEALTHCARE PROVIDER IMMEDIATELY IF YOU THINK YOU MAY HAVE A MEDICAL EMERGENCY. Always seek the advice of your physician or other qualified health provider prior to starting any new treatment or with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition.


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