There is a lot of confusion surrounding the topic of “organic” food. Understanding what “organic” (and other terms associated with natural foods) really means will help you to better choose the safest and healthiest foods for you and your family. It is a complicated topic, which would require research into many tangential details to fully understand, but we’ll break down the most important points to alleviate some of this confusion.
If you take the time to learn the facts in this comprehensive guide, you will be empowering yourself to make educated decisions about food consumption. You have a right to know why so many people consider the higher cost of organic to be worth the money, and to decide for yourself whether it’s worth it for you.
What is organic?
The definition of and regulations that accompany the term “organic” vary from country to country, so if you need to know if your food is organic, the first thing you have to do is check is where the food was grown and traded. The United States and Canada follow very similar standards for organic food, so if the food that you are purchasing is USDA (United States Department of Agriculture) or CFIA (Canadian Food Inspection Agency) Organic Certified, you can trust that “organic” will mean the following:
1. The producer or farmer must abide by a stringent set of government standards while growing and processing the food
2. No synthetic pesticides, chemical fertilizers, artificial coloring, artificial flavor or GMOs (genetically modified organisms) were used
3. Organic PRODUCE must be grown on soil that had no prohibited substances applied for three years prior to harvest
4. Organic MEAT requires that the animals have been living in conditions that accommodate their natural behaviors (such as the ability to graze or roam in a pasture), that the animals are fed 100 percent organic food, and that the animals are not injected with hormones or antibiotics
5. Organic PACKAGED PRODUCTS like chips or cookies must contain at least 70 percent certified organically produced ingredients, and the other 30 percent, if not entirely organic, must not contain GMOs
Is organic always healthier?
Many studies have been done to measure and compare the nutrient density of organic vs. inorganic food. The results vary so much from study to study and from food to food that in the end, the answer to this question remains broadly inconclusive.
Remember that nutrient density is contingent upon a lot of other factors - not just organic or inorganic. A lot of it has to do with whether the food has been cooked, whether the food has been frozen, how long the food has been on the shelf, how far the food has traveled and many other things.
So, while the studies surrounding nutrient content remain inconclusive, it is still fair to argue that organic foods are, for the most part, healthier. Because while they’re not necessarily always going to be more nutrient dense, they are much more likely to be more safe.
We know that organic foods are almost always safer because we know that they have been produced without the use of “organophosphates,” which are the basis of most synthetic insecticides, herbicides and nerve agents. The EPA (Environmental Protection Agency) has deemed “organophosphates” to be “highly, acutely toxic” substances to bees, insects, wildlife and humans. The bottom line is this: people who eat organic fruits and vegetables ingest fewer pesticides. Pesticides are dangerous, so, organic foods are safer.
Why care about chemicals? The purpose for and dangers associated with synthetic chemicals: organophosphates, pesticides, hormones, insecticides, preservatives, GMOs, etc.
All of the above listed chemicals are things that farmers or food producers use on their crops or their livestock for purposes of saving money. Using these chemicals makes it easier to grow more, bigger and longer-lasting produce, meat and dairy. While they may be saving money and space, the risk associated with these chemicals is a serious one.
These chemicals have been known to cause a wide ranger of human health hazards, both short-term and long-term, including but not limited to: nausea, headaches, cancer, reproductive harm, endocrine disruption, nerve/skin/eye irritation, dizziness, fatigue, systemic poisoning and more. Some of these health problems are minor, but others are potentially fatal.
Inorganic produce and meat is often cheaper and longer lasting, but the question remains: is it worth the health risk? Some argue that the cost of medical bills and lower quality of life that could come with consumption of inorganic food actually amounts to more money in the end. That’s up to you to decide.
Does organic taste better?
Many studies have been done comparing the taste of organic vs. inorganic products. As with nutrient density, these taste studies remain inconclusive because the results vary so widely. Remember that as with nutrient density, taste is often contingent upon the period of time between harvest and ingestion. If you pick something from your garden and eat it that day, the taste will be in its prime. If you purchase a product - organic or not - that has spent many days traveling hundreds or thousands of miles after being shipped internationally, it will inevitably lose some of its flavor. It is more likely that an organic food will be locally sourced than inorganic, but not all organic food is locally sourced.
Is organic more ethical and/or environmentally friendly?
In terms of produce, that depends on your perspective. Corporate food producers and large farmers argue that organic food is unethical and bad for the environment because it requires about twice as much land to produce the same amount of crop. However, others argue that organic farming is more ethical because it is being done without the use of harsh, synthetic chemicals that are dangerous for humans, animals and the environment.
In terms of meat, it’s pretty much safe to say that organic is always more ethical. Again, some will argue that it is less environmentally friendly to produce organic meat because it requires so much more land to graze and produce the organic feed that the livestock are required to eat. However, it is a well-known fact that the livelihood and dignity of animals in a mass-produced setting are largely disregarded. Many documentaries have been filmed and articles have been written about the inhumane treatment of animals in these settings. We recommend looking into that.
“The Dirty Dozen” - (High Risk Produce):
The EWG (Environmental Working Group) has studied and compiled a list of 12 types of produce that are most likely to contain pesticide residue. These are the least safe types of produce to purchase from a grocery store setting (when you don’t know exactly where they came from). If purchased, they must be washed very thoroughly. They are:
3. Cherry tomatoes
9. Snap peas
12. Sweet bell peppers
Also of note: hot peppers and kale/collard greens
“The Clean 15” - (Low Risk Produce):
The EWG has studied and compiled a list of 15 types of produce that are least likely to contain dangerous pesticide residue. As you’ll see, many of these fruits and vegetables are protected by naturally durable and thick outer surfaces. They are as follows:
13. Sweet Corn
14. Sweet Peas
15. Sweet Potatoes
As with anything else, to be certified “organic” is almost as always a safer and more ethical bet. It’s fair to argue that it’s worth the money and the effort to buy organic. But even then, you can never really be sure just how carefully these things are being regulated. The only way that you can be absolutely certain that your food is naturally, lovingly and safely produced is by growing/hunting/harvesting it yourself or by getting it from a local farmer/gardener/hunter who you know and trust.
In an ideal world, all of our food would be homegrown or traded. One day, we’ll get there. If not by choice, by necessity. The earth will only be able to sustain the current economy of corporate agriculture for so long. The rapid degradation of the environment is certainly of concern, and should be motivation for everybody to start learning how to produce their own food.
For now, we hope that this guide to organic foods will help you make the best possible choices.
Chelsey Luger. Photo courtesy Eller Bonifacio.
Chelsey Luger is Anishinaabe and Lakota from North Dakota. She hopes to be a strong link in a long chain of ancestors and descendants by spreading ideas for health and wellness. Follow her on Instagram and Twitter. Ideas for articles? Email her: email@example.com.