The Truth About Organic Food
We’ve all heard the controversy over organic food. On one hand, people claim that choosing organic is a must for optimal health and that anything else is poison. On the other, are those who claim that the “organic” label is nothing but a marketing ploy—that there are no real differences between organic and conventionally grown products when it comes to health.
So what’s the truth? Is organic really safer for our bodies and the environment? Is it worth it to invest the additional money in these so-called healthy products, or is the organic movement simply a marketing scheme gone awry that we should stay away from?
Science is beginning to unveil the truth about organic foods, and what’s it’s telling us will surprise you.
Organic Food Defined
Organic food is grown without the use of chemical pesticides and fertilizers. Organic farming also places an emphasis on soil quality and conservation. Organic food also does not include genetically modified organisms.
To be truly organic, food must also be free of certain synthetic additives, including artificial dyes.
According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, organic farming should “integrate cultural, biological, and mechanical practices that foster cycling of resources, promote ecological balance, and conserve biodiversity.”
Common organic farming practices include:
- Emphasizing biodiversity in soil by nourishing the microbial organisms that transfer nutrients (“good bacteria”).
- Contribute to soil structure to encourage efficient use of water.
- Feed soil with organic compost and other natural fertilizers.
- Control pests with plant nutrition – healthy plants resist pests more effectively.
- Control weeds with crop rotation, tillage, and manual removal.
When tested, organic produce consistently shows higher nutrient content than that which is conventionally grown.
According to one study, “Organic crops contained significantly more vitamin C, iron, magnesium, and phosphorus and significantly less nitrates than conventional crops. There were non-significant trends showing less protein but of a better quality and a higher content of nutritionally significant minerals with lower amounts of some heavy metals in organic crops compared to conventional ones.”
Organic foods also reduce human exposure to pesticides, which have known links to health issues including cancer and hormonal disruption.
Organic farming practices are also much more environmentally sustainable than conventional methods. The use of chemical pesticides and genetic engineering in modern agriculture is leading to significantly diminished biodiversity and contaminated groundwater.
Unfortunately, organic farming practices are much more labor intensive than conventional methods. This leads to higher food costs to consumers. While organic food quality is usually higher, yields are often much lower – another factor which increases the cost of organic food.
Currently, U.S. production of organic food also requires farmers and manufacturers to complete massive amounts of paperwork and pay fees that those in the “mainstream” food industry are exempt from. This burden is particularly hard on small organic farms and food manufacturers.
Genetically modified organisms (or GMOs) are those which have had their genetic material manipulated in a laboratory. This process of manipulation is known as genetic engineering. Scientists have genetically modified all kinds of organisms, including plants, animals, bacteria, and viruses. Often, the genetic material of two completely different kinds of organisms is combined.
GMO corn, for example, is engineered to produce its own insecticide called Bt toxin. Some varieties are even designed to resist herbicides.
Currently, the most widely used form of genetic engineering occurs in agriculture. Plants are genetically modified to increase yield, withstand drought, and be more resistant to herbicides.
There is a huge amount of controversy around whether GMOs are safe for the environment or for human consumption. Biotech companies selling the genetically modified seeds claim they are safe for humans and harmless to the environment. Environmental and food activists are convinced that genetically engineered food is nothing but trouble.
Many countries around the world have major restrictions and even bans on GMOs, including Japan, Australia, and the entire European continent.
Despite uncertainty, GM foods continue to be developed due to the potential benefits. Farmers appreciate crops that are less labor-intensive than their organic counterparts.
Increasing food production in food-insecure parts of the world is another important factor. Where starvation is rampant due to unfavorable agricultural conditions, GM crops might be the answer to feeding those populations. Because there has been no long term testing on human health, however, controversy still exists.
A statement from the International Union of Nutritional Sciences elaborates:
“Most consumers in rich countries have access to a relatively inexpensive supply of safe and healthy food. In contrast, micronutrient malnutrition is widespread in poor countries, affecting more than one-half of the population in the developing world. The potential benefits of improving the nutritional quality of foods are higher for low income countries, where food budgets account for two-thirds or more of total expenditures. The sustainable solution to malnutrition in developing countries is provision of a sufficient quantity of high quality diet. Nutritional and quality traits of foods can be altered through transgenic methods; such biofortification is a low-cost strategy for improving food quality that complements other technological and social interventions. The nutritional efficacy and risks of unintended harmful effects of these products have yet to be tested and demonstrated.”
While GMO proponents often attribute environmental benefits to GM crops, current research is pretty clear that negative environmental impact outweighs any benefits.
Soil erosion is lessened with the use of certain GM crops, including corn and canola, 2 crops grown in areas where erosion is a major problem. However, environmental risks are substantial:
- Cross-pollination: GM crops cross-pollinate with wild plants, which, over time is destroying biodiversity. Canola, for example is almost completely contaminated in many parts of the U.S.
- Water contamination – pesticide-producing crops contaminate nearby streams, risking damage to the water supply and aquatic life.
- Pesticide-resistant “super weeds” – As more pesticides are used, plants adapt to become more resistant, leading to more and more use of chemicals to control them.
A confirmed issue with certain genetically modified crops is increased human exposure to pesticides.
It’s really not all that hard to comprehend: these chemicals are designed to poison bugs. While humans are much larger and are able to tolerate these chemicals more easily than insects, it’s not hard to see how over time, long-term exposure to these poisons is causing problems.
Make no mistake – these chemicals do build up in the body over time. A small study conducted by Moms Across America found glyphosate (Roundup) present in 30% of American women. These findings contradict claims by the Monsanto Corporation, the leading chemical and biotech company. According to their spokesperson, “If ingested, glyphosate is excreted rapidly, does not accumulate in body fat or tissues, and does not undergo metabolism in humans. Rather, it is excreted unchanged in the urine.”
The study seems to prove otherwise: “The shocking results point to glyphosate levels building up in women’s bodies over a period of time, which has until now been refuted by both global regulatory authorities and the biotech industry.”
So, what’s the concern with glyphosate and other pesticides building up in our bodies? The research is shocking: “Roundup’s inert ingredients amplified the toxic effect on human cells—even at concentrations much more diluted than those used on farms and lawns. One specific inert ingredient, polyethoxylated tallowamine, or POEA, was more deadly to human embryonic, placental and umbilical cord cells than the herbicide itself – a finding the researchers call ‘astonishing.’”
Despite the alarming health risks, these chemicals are still used in increasing levels all the time. The main issue with regulatory standards related to the chemicals used in agriculture is that studies proving their “safety” are usually funded by the corporations that manufacture them. More accountability in safety standards is needed.
Not surprisingly, those living in agricultural communities are particularly at risk for pesticide exposure.
Avoiding GMO Ingredients
As of this writing, GMO labeling is required in at least 64 countries.
Mandatory labeling is not required in the United States. U.S. consumers seeking to avoid GMO foods are encouraged to seek out products verified by the independent Non-GMO project.
The most common GMO ingredients are:
- Canola (Rapeseed)
- Sugar beets
- Squash (yellow summer & zucchini)
- Hawaiian papaya
While many proponents of organic food claim huge nutritional advantages, studies show a much less significant difference between the nutrient content of organic and conventional produce.
The benefits of choosing organic produce are still substantial, however, since it’s the only way to avoid exposure to harmful pesticides. While nutrient content doesn’t vary much between the two types of produce, pesticide residue certainly does: organic produce has about 30% less residue than conventional.
To help consumers decide what to prioritize when shopping for food for their families, the Environmental Working Group publishes 2 lists each year: The Dirty Dozen and The Clean Fifteen. These lists outline which produce is particularly important to buy organic due to its especially high pesticide residue (The Dirty Dozen), as well as items that have low pesticide content and are safer to buy conventionally (The Clean Fifteen). As of this writing, the lists are as follows:
The Dirty Dozen – 12 Types of Produce to Buy Organic
- Sweet Bell Peppers
- Cherry Tomatoes
- Snap Peas (imported)
The Clean Fifteen – 15 Conventional Produce Items with the Lowest Pesticide Residue
- Sweet Corn
- Sweet Peas (frozen)
- Sweet Potatoes
Understandably, animal products must meet different requirements to be certified organic. Organic meat, dairy, and eggs must be free of antibiotics and added hormones. They cannot be genetically engineered or fed genetically modified feed.
The benefits of choosing organic animal products over conventional are profound – some might even argue more important than which produce you buy.
Because of the way antibiotics and hormones build up in fat cells, animal products without these additives are much safer to consume. Additionally, unlike produce, organic animal products do consistently prove to be more nutritious than their conventional counterparts.
While it’s not a requirement, organically-raised animals tend to be raised more ethically as well. Animals raised organically tend to be fed more biologically appropriate food and are more likely to graze or get “free range” time.
While organic animal products are healthier than conventional options, many experts are recommending eating less meat in general for optimal health – and the lowest environmental impact.
Stefanie Sacks MS, CNS, CDN, author of the book “What Fork are You Eating” shared these insights in an interview:
USDA Organic is regulated (by the U.S. government) and is trustworthy, but you do need to fully understand what their standards mean to determine if this label is right for you. Terms like “cage-free”, “antibiotic-free”, “hormone-free”, “pasture raised”, “humanely raised” and “grass-fed” mean absolutely nothing unless verified by an independent third-party certification such as Animal Welfare Approved (or Certified Humane). Although it is safe to say that USDA Organic also verifies “antibiotic-free”, “hormone-free”. There are also plenty of small independent farms doing the right thing without the certifications.
Use of the term “organic” in the food industry is strictly regulated. Not all “organic” labels mean the same thing, though. Here’s what you need to know:
- “100 Percent Organic” – all ingredients must be certified organic, all processing agents must be organic, and the label must show the certifying agent.
- “Organic” – All agricultural ingredients must be certified organic, organic ingredients must comprise 95 percent of the finished product (excluding salt and water), and the label must show the certifying agent.
- “Made with Organic” – At least 70 percent (excluding salt and water) of the finished product must be certified organic ingredients, certain production methods are not allowed, and the label must clearly show the certifying agent. Alternatively, labels may state “Made with Organic ___” for up to 3 certified organic ingredients. Organic ingredients must be identified with an asterisk or other identifying mark on the ingredients list.
There are a few independent agencies that certify foods to help consumers make buying choices. The Non-GMO Project is one example; they allow their label on any foods completely free of genetically modified ingredients.
A current push exists to require labeling of genetically modified foods in the U.S. Similar laws are already in place in most developed countries.
Some operations, such as organic farmers with less than $5,000 in sales per year, are exempt from certification when using the organic label. Exempt operations are still expected to meet the same organic standards.
Because of the higher cost of organic food, many consumers have to make very intentional choices about how to keep the food budget under control. There are a few ways to keep costs down, even when choosing organic:
- Cook from scratch. Organic ingredients are much cheaper than pre-processed food and typically much healthier as well.
- Connect with farmers. Many organic farmers may be open to bartering arrangements and will often even allow buyers to come and “pick your own” for reduced costs.
- Eat less meat. Meat and other animal products are the most expensive foods to buy organic, most of the time. Choosing plant-based protein sources some or all of the time will help you cut costs.
- Even if you can’t afford to choose organic all the time, start by prioritizing those foods which have the most pesticide residue. The aforementioned “Clean Fifteen” and “Dirty Dozen” lists can help you decide.
- Buy in bulk. Grains and legumes, in particular, are much cheaper to buy in bulk and have a pretty long shelf life.
- Buy in season. In-season, local produce is more cost-effective and usually much more nutritious as well.
- Buy frozen. Frozen produce is, in general, just as or more nutritious as fresh, since it’s usually frozen almost immediately after being picked. It’s often cheaper, too, especially for off season, non-local items.
While controversy and higher costs seem to be holding back the organic industry right now, industry leaders predict tremendous growth, thanks to consumer education and increasing environmental and health concerns.
Stonyfield Organic co-founder Gary Hirschberg explains, “I often joke that back when we started Stonyfield in 1983, you couldn’t even use the words ‘organic’ and ‘industry’ in the same sentence. With just seven cows and hardly any consumers understanding ‘why’ it made sense to eat organic, we had no supply, and no demand. Organic food sales now represent about seven percent of all U.S. food sales. The organic industry grew by nine percent in 2011, adding new jobs at four times the national average. Every day more people are deciding they want to take control of their health by taking control of their diet. Hardly a day goes by without another story breaking about a food supply scare. Pink slime in our burgers, antibiotics in industrial livestock production leading to antibiotic-resistant superbugs, arsenic in our chicken, salmonella on our cantaloupe – the list goes on. As we look forward, to the next 20 years and beyond, I believe that the organic business sector can show America and the world how to create an economically successful food system based on true transparency and public trust.”
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