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Is Organic Food Worth the Premium?

By Kalyn Weber, November 24, 2014

What is “organic”?

We all have our own ideas about what it means to be organic. In food speak, the term “organic” actually refers to the way agricultural products are grown or raised and processed. In the US, specific requirements—which are set and regulated by the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) – must be met and maintained by manufacturers in order for products to be labeled "organic." organic_vs_not_image_sized

According to the USDA definition, “Organic is a labeling term that indicates that the food or other agricultural product has been produced through approved methods that integrate cultural, biological, and mechanical practices that foster cycling of resources, promote ecological balance, and conserve biodiversity.” For example, the USDA maintains a list of approved substances that can be used as pesticides and herbicides in organic farming. The key criterion for making the list is that the substance must occur in nature (although not necessarily naturally derived). For organic livestock, producers must: meet animal health and welfare standards, avoid the use of antibiotics or growth hormones, use 100% organic feed, and provide animals with access to the outdoors. Generally speaking, organic practices are better for animals and for the environment.

What is not organic?

Foods and food products labeled as organic may not contain or use in production the following:

  • Synthetic (petroleum-based) fertilizers
  • Synthetic* pesticides
  • Sewage sludge
  • Irradiation
  • Antibiotics or growth hormones (livestock)
  • Genetic engineering (GE) / genetic modification (GM)

*Organic pesticides such as are naturally derived from a plant (e.g., pyrethrum), microorganism (e.g., Bacillus thuringiensis), or other natural sources are still permitted in organic agriculture

However, there are a number of other labels that are often confused with organic, such as “local,” “free-range,” “natural” and “humane.” While many organic producers may meet the requirements of these designations, the USDA Organic seal does not guarantee anything beyond the scope of the certification.

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What is the organic certification?

In order to sell, label, or represent products as organic in the United States, operations must be certified. The National Organic Program, part of USDA’s Agricultural Marketing Service, accredits private, foreign, and state entities, called “certifying agents,” to inspect and certify organic operations. Approximately 30,000 organic farms and processing facilities around the world (17,000 in the US alone) are certified to the USDA organic standards. There are over 100 certifying agents located throughout the United States and around the world. Once certified by an accredited agent, foods may display the USDA Organic Seal.

Organic vs. 100% organic

Single-ingredient foods, like fruits and vegetables, are easy to identity as organic or not; just look for the label! Foods with multiple ingredients, like cereals and beverages, require a deeper understanding of the organic label. Multi-ingredient products that contain at least 95% organic ingredients, by weight, may use the organic seal; 100% organic means that the product itself is organic or is made entirely of organic ingredients.

“Made with” vs. “contains” 

If a product contains at least 70% organic ingredients by weight, it can use the designation “made with organic ingredients.” If the product contains less than 70% organic ingredients, it can display “contains organic ingredients.” In neither case are products allowed to use the USDA organic seal. Instead, manufactures are able to list the specific organic ingredients on the front of the package. 

Is organic food healthier for me?

Since organic food is generally more expensive than non-organic, you may be wondering: is it worth it? According to the literature, while there is little evidence that organic foods contain more nutrients than conventional foods, they may be healthier for you. This is especially true when considering exposure to pesticides and antibiotic-resistant bacteria, as eating organic may reduce your exposure to these harmful substances. A 2012 systematic review found that pesticide residue was 30% less likely to be found on organic foods compared to conventional foods (remember, organic / non-synthetic pesticides are still permitted in organic agriculture). The risk for antibiotic-resistant bacteria exposure was also higher in conventional chicken and pork in the review study. Also, for those of you who are environmentally minded, there is no debating that organic practices are better for the planet. As stated in a report from the Academy of Nutrition & Dietetics, “documented environmental benefits of organic production systems include reduced nutrient pollution, improved soil organic matter, lower energy use, reduced pesticide residues in food and water and enhanced biodiversity.” Try InsideTracker to see how the foods you are eating are affecting your unique biochemistry, and how to optimize. 

When to buy organic

Especially given the high price on organic products, you may be interested to know what foods give you the greatest bang for your buck in terms of health benefits. The Environmental Working Group recommends starting with the “Dirty Dozen™,” 12 foods that have been documented to contain high amounts of pesticide residue. Try to buy these foods in their organic version to reap the greatest benefits. The group also identified a list of foods that are probably safe to buy in conventionally grown form, known as “The Clean 15”™.

“The Dirty Dozen”

1. Apples

2. Celery

3. Cherry Tomatoes

4. Cucumbers

5. Grapes

6. Peppers

7. Nectarines

8. Peaches

9. Potatoes

10. Strawberries

11. Leafy Greens

12. Zucchini 

 

'“The Clean 15”

1. Asparagus

2. Avocados

3. Cabbage

4. Cantaloupe

5. Sweet Corn

6. Eggplant

7. Grapefruit

8. Kiwi

9. Mangos

10. Mushrooms

11. Onions

12. Papayas

13. Pineapples

14. Sweet peas

15. Sweet potatoes

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