With health concerns weighing on their minds, more and more people decide to give organic food a try. After all, it’s difficult not to notice that every supermarket has organic foods aisles, discounts, and offers. It’s also natural for shoppers to feel as though they are making the better choice with regards to their nutrition.
Organic foods boast high nutrient contents, they’re pesticide and fertilizer free (chemical-based substances), they’re environmentally friendly, they reduce water pollution, create jobs, taste better, they’re not irradiated, they support wildlife habitats and they lessen the consumer’s exposure to antibiotics, growth hormones, and other types of drugs. But are these claims as accurate as we believe them to be? In this article, we discuss organic food and whether science supports the idea that consuming organic foods is indeed the better choice for our families and ultimately the planet.
What is Organic Food?
Organic food and crops are the results of local and organic agriculture that shies away from using any and all chemical pesticides or fertilizers in any stage of the production, packaging, or delivery of their produce. Of course, each nation imposes different standards when it comes to organic farming, so there’s no universal organic food definition, but the key aspect is that organic food is only the result of agricultural practices centered on supporting the ecological balance, cycling resources, and conserving biodiversity.
More importantly, organic foods are not treated or processed by using food additives or other synthetic substances, irradiation, or industrial solvents. The result of such agricultural practices must undergo a series of investigations in order to receive the organic certification and be labeled “organic”. Here are some of the requirements for obtaining such a certification:
- Crops must grow in safe soil.
- Organic food cannot be altered or modified and must remain separate from conventional products.
- Throughout the production and delivery process, farmers are barred from using GMO’s, synthetic pesticides, chemical fertilizers, or sludge-based fertilizers.
- Organic animal foods (livestock, for instance) must be given access to the outdoors.
- Organic livestock only receives organic feed.
- Producers are barred from administering growth hormones, animal by-products, antibiotics, or other chemical compounds to organic livestock.
In the US, for instance, numerous producers claim to be selling “organic food”. Even so, it’s the USDA Certified Organic Product label that guarantees the accuracy of such claims. All foods boasting this certification have undergone rigorous examination and have met the criteria required for the certification to be awarded.
Being able to understand the labels of the food you’re buying is extremely important. According to USDA regulations, only those foods that contain 95 – 100 percent organic ingredients are allowed to use the USDA Organic Label. In order to make the distinction, completely organic foods will display a 100% Organic seal while foods that are at least 95 percent organic ingredients will have an “Organic” seal.
The same regulations allow manufacturers to also feature descriptions such as “made with organic ingredients” for those products that are at least 70 percent organic in origin, while products containing less than 70 percent organic ingredients may list a “containing organic ingredients” description. Neither of these two will feature the USDA organic seal.
Organically Grown Produce, Organic Farming, and Organic Food Stores
Unlike its conventionally grown counterpart, organic food is grown without coming in contact with pesticides throughout the production process. Furthermore, the soils in which such food grows is enhanced by means of natural, organic fertilizers (plant-, animal- or mineral-based). Weeds and pests are cleverly prevented or controlled naturally (via crop rotation, hand weeding, mulching, as well as using beneficial insects).
All these methods may seem complicated yet they boast significant benefits, aside from just producing exceptionally-tasting crops. Organic farming:
- Is sustainable in the long term;
- Produces crops and yields equal to (or even surpassing) those of conventional farms;
- Prevents groundwater pollution;
- Prevents soil depletion and nitrogen leaching;
- Significantly reduces non-renewable energy usage;
- Promotes biodiversity;
- Creates jobs.
Organic foods also have noteworthy advantages. Here are just some of the benefits of organic food:
- It contains more nutrients (50% more antioxidants, significantly higher polyphenol contents as studies show).
- It tastes better.
- It reduces the overall amount of toxins and carcinogens that we ingest (studies have found that an average newborn baby already has over 200 such substances in its body).
- It is the financially superior choice (aside from strengthening the economy, local, organic food may be cheaper since transportation and packaging costs as well as middlemen are eliminated).
- It’s fresher than conventional food (they’re harvested ripe and only delivered in close proximity to the place where they were produced).
- It boasts antioxidant capacity (source).
- It all but eliminates pesticides from our diets (when fully switching to organic).
- It increases heart health promoting fatty acids such as conjugated linoleic acid.
- It promotes immune system health.
- It decreases antibiotic resistance by reducing exposure to antibodies that are normally fed to conventionally-grown livestock.
- It’s environmentally friendly (minimal soil, air and water pollution).
- It helps build more muscle.
- It helps burn more fat.
Buying Organic Food: What to Look Out for
Now some circumstances may not permit that you buy all of your produce organic. If this is the case, certain organic foods are superior to their conventional counterparts and you should strive to procure them first. Organic milk, for instance, has been shown to contain more vitamins, antioxidants, CLA and omega-3 fatty acids than conventional milk.
Organic tomatoes were the subject of a 10-year-study conducted by University of California scientists. They were shown to contain 79% more quercetin and 97% more kaempferol than conventional tomatoes. Apples should be bought organic because of the large pesticide contents of conventional apples. Peaches and nectarines, strawberries, grapes, celery, spinach, bell peppers, and kale should also be bought organic.
The reason is the high content of pesticides. Conventional fruit and vegetables with thicker skins generally have lower levels of pesticides (onions, mushrooms, grapefruit, mango, kiwi, eggplants, cabbage, mushrooms, avocado, and sweet potatoes are just some of the conventional foods that you can buy without fearing their pesticide levels).
Organic Meat and Dairy Products
In order to increase production levels and reduce the number of animals lost to diseases and infections, producers often use antibiotics and growth hormones in the conventional meat and dairy industries. However, these animals also receive pig and chicken byproducts as food substitutes, arsenic-based drugs, as well as sewage sludge throughout their lifetime.
To avoid ingesting these harmful products, it’s best to choose organic whenever possible.
Buying Organic: Community Supported Agriculture, Produce Delivery Services and Organic Food Stores
Clearly, one of the questions on everyone’s mind is where to buy organic food? Granted, large chains such as Costco, Aldi, Walmart, or Whole Foods feature organic produce and often offer discounts on some of their items. Using organic coupons is a solution, but even so, it may prove difficult to find all the produce you require and simultaneously respect your budget.
Though most supermarkets have organic produce sections, there is a multitude of organic food stores to consider. Community supported agriculture is also a great choice, especially if you intend on supporting the local economy. Door-to-door delivery companies offer services across the United States, delivering fresh produce baskets and bringing fresh produce directly from the farm to your door. You can choose from a plethora of such delivery services, who either curate a delivery box or allow you to pick the products that you desire.
You don’t have to fear that organic food is more expensive than conventional food. While your average $1 fast food menu may seem like a bargain, are hamburgers and fries really nutritious enough to sustain your family in the long run? Seriously not. The solution is to do your research. First and foremost, consider local farmer’s markets.
Nowadays, most cities and small towns hold farmer’s markets where producers (including organic farmers) come to display their wares. The best part is that they only cost a fraction of what you would pay in large stores or supermarkets.
When shopping organic, community-based ventures will significantly lower your costs, so seek out co-ops or CSA farms where multiple families and buyers purchase “produce shares” in bulk.
Online food stores and food delivery systems are also blooming across the US, and their delivery routes are bound to include your town! Door-to-Door organics, for instance, began in Colorado. Shortly after, they expanded their delivery routes to Michigan, Pennsylvania, New Jersey, Delaware and Chicago. While you’re free to order alone, forming a co-op so that multiple deliveries are brought to the same location will further decrease your costs.
CSA product boxes are either fruit-only, vegetable-only or mixed versions, containing seasonal, fresh produce. While a bitty box is enough to feed two people (costing around $25.99), their large boxes can feed an entire family of vegetarians ($59.99).
Depending on region and state, different organic CSA’s can provide you with the produce you’re seeking. Quinciple in NY City, FromtheFarmerDC in Washington DC, Northern Virginia and Baltimore, NaturesGardenDelivered in Phoenix, Arizona, Atlanta and Georgia, FarmhouseDelivery in Texas, FreshPicks in Illinois, Milwaukee and Wisconsin, OrganicsToYou in Oregon and many more.
If you’re not a fan of receiving a bag of combined, fresh fruit and veggies, you can always follow some tips on reducing your grocery costs when shopping organic:
- Aim for in-season products: fresh fruit and vegetables should be bought in season for a variety of reasons (price is only one of these reasons. It’s a great idea to have a staple food that you know will not suffer major price shifts. Rice, potatoes, and bananas are just some of the accessible alternatives. Such staple foods can be bought in bulk, further lowering their costs.
- Seek out the best deals. Even when shopping at Walmart or Whole Foods, you still need to be mindful of prices. You’ll discover that while Whole Foods may have organic milk, peanut butter, and chicken broth that are surprisingly accessible, Aldi or Trader Joe’s may be selling cheaper fruit, beef or yogurt. Of course, depending on your location and season, these prices may shift. Many such food chains offer discount catalogs and advertisements, so it’s clever to also save up on fuel money and check their offers online!
- Consider warehouse clubs. Despite the fact that you have to pay a yearly membership fee, warehouse clubs have killer deals on the products they sell, including organic foods. Always compare the price per pound or the price per ounce to get an accurate reading on the price!
- Consider organic food stores such as Organic Kingdom, Organic Mall, SunOrganic Farm, and shopOrganic
The Environmental Benefits of Choosing Organic Food
Considering the fact that only 1 percent of the pesticides used in conventional agriculture actually reach the pests they were intended for, with the remaining 99 percent entering the environment (Source), we should be more open to shifting our focus to sustainable, organic farming.
Simply put, there is a significantly smaller environmental footprint attached to organic food and organic agriculture. In part because of the fact that it doesn’t require large quantities of synthetic pesticides and fertilizers (byproducts of the oil industry). Additionally, the fact that organic systems don’t condone the use of such chemicals ensures that there’s no toxic build-up within ecosystems (usually, the species at the top of the food chain would reach lethal levels of toxins by ingesting the animals or the plants contaminated with such chemicals).
More importantly, though, organic farming also contributes to a healthier environment by not allowing harmful chemicals to leach into our water supply (be it rivers, lakes, oceans, or groundwater).
Local wildlife preservation and biodiversity are two other consequences of organic food production, as organic farms often represent a retreat for wildlife, in perfect balance with the habitat they find themselves in. Greenhouse gas emissions are also reduced when people switch to organic foods (local distribution, lower fossil fuel energy consumption).
The lack of GMO’s is also beneficial in the sense that, since most GMO’s in the world are already herbicide tolerant and as such, require herbicides with even higher toxicities.
All in all, choosing organic does ensure that you play your part in helping our planet while also providing the best nourishment for your loved ones. It’s as simple as just choosing.