Organic food is on a roll. Sales have doubled in the last decade, and organic foods are now available in three out of four conventional supermarkets.
Rather than being relegated to the “organic produce bin,” there is now a wide assortment of organic foods and beverages. You can not only toss organic apples in your cart but also add a few organic gummy bears from the candy aisle, for example, and then pop over to the liquor store for organic vodka!
We are willing to pay more for organics, mostly because we think they are healthier for us. But are they really? What does “organic” on a food label really mean, anyway?
Let’s explore a few common myths—and truths.
6 ORGANIC FOOD MYTHS
For such a popular (and pricey) part of our everyday food-buying habits, organic foods are surprisingly misunderstood…
1. Belief: Organic foods are more nutritious. Not exactly. The science is mixed. In 2012, a meta-analysis of 17 studies done by Stanford University found very little difference in vitamin content between organic and conventional produce. However, other studies have found that organic dairy and meat products contain more heart-healthy omega-3 fats, and organic fruits and vegetables are richer in antioxidant compounds than conventional produce.
The bottom line? While there may be some nutritional merits, the main reason to buy organic is not to get more nutritious fare but to support systems of cultivation that are good for the environment (see What “Organic” Really Means below).
2. Belief: Organic foods are less likely to cause food poisoning.
Sorry, not true either. An organic chicken or hamburger meat that you buy from a farmer’s market is no less likely to cause food-borne illness than conventional products.
3. Belief: Organic foods improve health. Maybe. Organic produce is significantly lower in pesticide residues than conventional. Both adults and children who eat more organic foods have lower levels of pesticides in their bodies compared with those who eat little or no organic foods. But whether that translates to healthier lives isn’t known.
4. Belief: Organic foods are always local and sustainable. Sometimes, but not always. The standards do promote “sustainable practices,” but do not require foods to be produced locally. The US imported $1.65 billion worth of organics in 2016, both fresh and processed, mostly from Turkey, Mexico, Italy, Peru and Ecuador. Transporting foods long distances means greater use of fossil fuels, which is not a sustainable practice.
5. Belief: Organic foods are pesticide-free. Not necessarily. It’s true that farming practices that promote biodiversity, natural borders, soil health and natural pest predators lessen pest problems, so there’s less need for pesticides.
But while most synthetic pesticides are not allowed in organic produce, there are a few exceptions—25 are allowed (compared with about 900 in conventional produce). In addition, “natural” pesticides are allowed, such as soaps or lime sulfur.
6. Belief: All organic producers are the same. Not by a long shot. Some farms practice techniques that go well beyond the standards—avoiding even “allowed” pesticides and selling locally—while other farms barely squeak under the minimum compliance to standards.
So you may want to seek out local organic producers who are more in tune with the spirit of organic, such as caring for the environment and supplying a local food source. The moral of the story? If buying organic matters to you, do some homework on organic producers before you buy.
What “Organic” Really Means
The main reason to choose organic is to support a kind of food cultivation that preserves the soil and promotes a cleaner environment. Nutrition and safety aren’t the primary goals. Organic cultivation isn’t so much about the end product as it is about the process.
The USDA’s National Organic Program (NOP) maintains standards for organically produced agricultural products. The purpose is to support a system of farming that encourages recycling of resources within a farm, protects the environment, enhances soil and water quality and conserves ecosystems and wildlife. Most synthetic fertilizers, sewage sludge, irradiation and genetic engineering can’t be used.
Only products that have been through a rigorous certification process to show that they meet these requirements may carry the USDA organic seal. Foods with the seal may be labeled “100% organic” (everything in it is organic)…“organic” (at least 95% of the ingredients are organic)…or “made with organic ingredients” (at least 70% of the ingredients are organic). This includes both whole foods (for example, an apple) and packaged foods (such as applesauce).
Best Foods to Buy Organic…and What to Skip
According to data analyzed by the nonprofit Environmental Working Group (EWG), these are some of the foods that should be at the top of your organic shopping list…
• Leafy greens. Crops such as these, which grow close to the soil, are prone to pests. Spinach samples had twice as much pesticide residue as any other crop.
• Strawberries, which also grow close to the soil, had up to 20 different pesticides.
• Peaches and nectarines tested positive for at least one pesticide in nearly all samples.
• Cherries and apples tested positive for pesticide residues in nearly all of the samples tested.
• Dairy foods, eggs and meat. Organically raised beef cattle, dairy cows and chickens are not treated with synthetic growth hormones or antibiotics. Plus, organic dairy, meat and eggs have higher levels of omega-3s, and organic eggs have more vitamins A and E.
If your food budget is limited, don’t waste your organic dollars here…
• Candy and soda. Organic sugary foods are just as bad for your health as conventional sugary foods.
• Baked treats, such as cookies, cakes and pies. A few organic ingredients in a decadent treat won’t make it any healthier.
• Nuts, melons and avocados. The outer shells of these foods protect them from pests, so few pesticides are needed. They tend to have low residue levels.
• Carrots and sweet potatoes. These root vegetables, which grow in the soil rather than above it, can absorb some pesticides through the soil but are usually peeled before eating.
• Citrus. Citrus fruit, especially grapefruit, registered among the fruits with the lowest levels of pesticide residues, according to EWG. Thank the thick rind!