Let’s be real. The term “organic” is a confusing one. We learned in our grade school science classes that something organic is made up of carbon.
So what does it mean when we are talking about organic foods? Not only do we have organic produce, but then there is also organic meat.
“Organic” has become a buzz word. People have started to use it in reference to produce that was organically grown without the use of pesticides.
This makes sense, but then how would that apply to meat? Does “organic meat” simply mean meat that was raised with feed that is free of pesticides? Or is there more to it than that?
And then there is the issue of genetically modified organisms, called GMO’s for short. Where does that come into play in this whole concept of organic foods? As you can see, organic food is not a simple subject.
There is quite a bit of controversy surrounding the term “organic,” and legislation has started to govern who is allowed to put a certified organic label on their foods in various nations across the world (hint: look for a USDA organic seal).
Read on to find out what organic food actually is, a comparison of organic versus non-organic foods, the top ten benefits of organic food, information about genetically modified organisms, chemicals, and pesticide exposure, what the dirty dozen and clean fifteen are, and tips for keeping the cost of organic food within your budget.
What is organic food?
Food is considered to be organic when it is grown and processed in a certain way.
Regulations are different from country to country. In the United States, food must be grown without using synthetic pesticides, genetically modified genes (i.e., they cannot be GMO’s), or synthetic fertilizers/chemical fertilizers based on petroleum or sewage sludge in order to be considered organic.
This goes for produce, but what about livestock? Animals raised for their meat, eggs, milk, and other dairy products need to have access to the outdoors and be fed organic feed to be considered organic.
These animals must also not be given antibiotics, growth hormones, or animal byproducts.
Organic vs. non-organic
- Grown with manure, compost, and other natural fertilizers
- Natural weed control through hand weeding, mulching, tilling, and crop rotation
- Natural pest control such as birds, insects, traps, and naturally derived pesticides
- Livestock are fed organic, non-GMO, hormone-free feed
- Natural methods of preventing disease in livestock such as healthy diet, clean housing, and rotational grazing
- Livestock need to have access to the outdoors
- Crops grown using synthetic or chemical fertilizers
- Weed control is performed using chemical herbicides
- Synthetic pesticides are used for pest control
- Livestock are given non-organic GMO feed and growth hormones for quicker growth
- Livestock disease is prevented using medications such as antibiotics
- Livestock isn’t necessarily given access to the outdoors
10 benefits of organic foods
1) Reduces the risk of allergic disease
There is some research to show that eating organic foods can lead to less allergic processes. This includes seasonal allergies and atopic dermatitis (also known as eczema).
2) Reduces the risk of obesity
Eating organic can help to reduce the risk of becoming overweight and obese, which is a growing concern in the United States and other parts of the world as well.
Being overweight and obese can lead to all sorts of other health problems as well, including but not limited to: diabetes, metabolic syndrome, heart disease, risk of heart attack, risk of stroke, and high blood pressure (which is called hypertension in the medical community).
3) Reduces risk of development issues
Research has demonstrated that consuming more organic foods reduces the risk of issues associated with cognitive development.
4) Increases your omega-3 intake
Studies have shown that organic foods have a higher content of omega-3 fatty acids as compared to non-organic products, without the risk of heavy metals.
Increasing omega-3 fatty acid intake can help with other health problems, including but not limited to: dry eyes, dry skin, constipation, depression, anxiety, and allergic conditions such as asthma and atopic dermatitis.
5) It’s more environmentally friendly
Eating more organic foods is not only healthier for your body, but the environment as well. When you choose to eat organic, you are kind to your body as well as the world around you.
6) Lower pesticide content
Organic foods have lower exposure to pesticides and pesticide residues as compared to conventional foods.
7) Decreases your chances of getting sick from food
Research has shown that there is a 33% lower risk of bacteria that is resistant to three or more antibiotics in organic chicken and pork compared to their non-organic counterparts. So eating organic can help to improve health safety, too!
8) Higher nutritional value
Scientific research studies have shown that organic foods can be more nutritious. Organic foods provide significantly greater levels of nutrients, including vitamin C, iron, magnesium, and phosphorus than the non-organic varieties of the same foods.
Organic foods provide greater levels of important antioxidant phytochemicals, including anthocyanins, flavonoids, and carotenoids. Antioxidants are important because they help to scavenge free radicals in the body, which can contribute to the formation of cancer and inflammation.
10) Can increase fertility
Significant positive outcomes were seen in longitudinal studies where consuming more organic foods was associated with a reduced incidence of infertility. Infertility is becoming a widespread and common concern around the world.
Many young men and women would go to great lengths in order to be able to conceive a child, so eating organic is a fairly simple change they can make in their lives that can have a huge impact.
If a food is non-GMO, does this mean that it is also free of pesticides? Not necessarily.
Some sources say that genetically modified crops have led to a decrease in herbicide use, while others claim that the opposite is true.
Since 1996, most genetically modified organisms have become genetically modified herbicide-tolerant (GMHT for short). This involves using a herbicide, usually glyphosate.
At first, GMHT crops led to a decrease in the use of herbicides. Over time, however, glyphosate-tolerant crops and the use of only glyphosate in the same fields has taken its toll. Without alternating herbicides, there was no herbicide diversity.
This resulted in glyphosate-resistant weeds. The appearance of these weeds has led to a rise in glyphosate and herbicide use in general.
Some sources agree that farming management practices associated with the cultivation of herbicide-tolerant crops deplete biodiversity of the farmland and lead to the evolution of herbicide-resistant weeds.
Other sources, however, claim that genetically modified insect-resistant and herbicide-tolerant technology has reduced pesticide spraying. One source claims that pesticide spraying decreased by 671.4 million kg or 8.2% due to the introduction of genetically modified crops.
They also say that this has decreased the environmental impact associated with herbicide and insecticide use on these crops by 18.4% according to their measurement, which is called the Environmental Impact Quotient.
List of “dirty” and “clean” vegetables
The “dirty dozen” is a list created by the Environmental Working Group each year to determine which 12 foods should be eaten in their organic forms since they seem to be most affected by pesticides. The dirty dozen are as follows:
The “clean fifteen” is another list, also created by the Environmental Working Group each year. This one outlines which 15 foods are safe to be consumed in their non-organic form. The clean fifteen are as follows:
- Sweet corn
- Frozen sweet peas
- Honeydew melons
Tips for keeping the cost of organic food within your budget
One of the major concerns of people wanting to eat organic is the higher cost of organic foods.
Organic foods do tend to be more expensive due to the fact that organic production is more labor-intensive. However, there are ways of keeping the cost of your grocery bill down. Here they are below:
- Buy non-organic when you can: Since non-organic foods tend to cost less, you don’t need to go to the organic section for your “clean fifteen” foods (see above). These are generally safe when consumed in their non-organic form. For example, you can buy non-organic avocadoes, but you’ll want to make sure you get organic tomatoes.
- Shop at your local farmer’s market: Shop at local farmer’s markets, since they usually sell their produce at a lower price than the grocery stores do and typically have organic produce, meat, and meat products.
- Join a food co-op: Try joining a food co-op in your area. A co-op works by offering lower prices to members, who pay an annual fee to belong to the co-op. Look for either a natural foods co-op or cooperative grocery store that is local to you.
- Join a Community Supported Agriculture farm: Join a Community Supported Agriculture farm (called CSA farm for short). At a CSA farm, individuals and families come together to buy produce in bulk form. They usually purchase directly from organic farms in the area, so this results in produce that is both local and organic.
- Compare prices: Shop around! Much like you would with other products such as electronics or cars, try comparing prices at various outlets. Check out the grocery store, your local farmer’s market, and the freezer aisle, which actually can have organic offerings that are within budget from time to time.
- Buy in-season produce: Buy organic fruits and vegetables that are in season. This is when they are freshest and cheapest. Find out when produce is delivered to your local market so that you can try buying organic and get the freshest fruits possible.
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We hope that we were able to clarify the muddy waters surrounding everything organic for you. The topic of organic foods is relatively new, and so educating yourself on the subject is important. Concerns around non-organic foods will likely continue to rise over the coming years.
Remember that the definition of “organic” differs between countries. You should lookout for a USDA organic label. Now that you have read through the top ten benefits of organic foods, do you think that going organic could help improve your health?
Even if you don’t necessarily have a specific health condition, it is possible that increasing your intake of organic foods can offer several health benefits and improve your overall long-term health.
It might be a good idea to write down the dirty dozen and clean fifteen to keep with you when you do your grocery shopping. This way, you can be sure you are getting organic foods where that’s important, and saving money by purchasing the non-organic versions of clean fifteen foods. As you can see from this article, you can still eat organic and not break the bank.
It’s always a good idea to consult a health care provider before making any major changes to your diet, so you may want to consider this before implementing an organic diet by visiting a nutritionist or naturopathic doctor.