organic vs non organic food

Organic vs. Nonorganic Foods

Having trended upward for the last decade or two, the organic food market continues to grow. 2019 was a boom for the organic food sector of our economy, with sales of organic foods totaling $50.1 billion, up 4.6% from 2018. Then, the pandemic hit, and sales spiked even more. After jumping up by more than 50% during the early days of the pandemic, U.S. organic produce sales were up more than 20% in the spring of 2020. For years, there has been debate about whether organic foods are healthier and better for you than conventionally produced foods. I hope to help to give you unbiased, research-based look at organic vs. nonorganic foods.

Organic vs. Nonorganic Food

By: Jeremy Partl, Registered Dietitian

You walk into the grocery store, entering in and heading straight to the produce section where a large wall of fruits and vegetables sits in front of you, and there seem to be a million options. You have already decided to eat healthier—fewer processed foods and more fruits and vegetables—and now you are trying to figure out what to fill your basket with. What’s more, there are many duplicate fruits and vegetables divided between conventional products and the “organic” section.

While it seems like both apples are equally firm, shiny, and red, you are not sure if there is just better lighting or what, but it seems like the “organic” apple (and the section in general) is cleaner, sparkles more, and seems like it has a glow to it.

Not ironically, that visible nature isn’t much different from the perspective many people have with “organic” foods. Often referred to as a “health halo,” these products carry a perception of being superior because they are grown under natural conditions.

But is that really the truth? For years, there has been debate about whether organic foods are healthier and better for you than conventionally produced foods. Should you buy organic products? In this article, I hope to help to educate you on what the “organic” claim really means and give you unbiased, research-based guidelines for navigating the back-and-forth on the issue.

What is “Organic”?

Having trended upward for the last decade or two, the organic food market continues to grow. 2019 was a boom for the organic food sector of our economy, with sales of organic foods totaling $50.1 billion, up 4.6% from 2018. Then, the pandemic hit, and sales spiked even more. After jumping up by more than 50% during the early days of the pandemic, U.S. organic produce sales were up more than 20% in the spring of 2020. [1]

Organic is a labeling term developed by the USDA, indicating that produce, meat, or other food products have been produced and handled through approved methods. It is a technical term whose meaning is defined entirely by a regulatory body. Before food is labeled as “organic,” a USDA-accredited certifying agent must verify that it meets certain standards and requirements that must be verified by a USDA-accredited certifying agent.

So, what are the requirements?[2]

Crop Standards

  • Land must have had no prohibited substances applied to it for at least three years before the harvest of an organic crop.
  • Soil fertility and crop nutrients will be managed through tillage and cultivation practices, crop rotations, and cover crops, supplemented with animal and crop waste materials and allowable synthetic materials.
  • Crop pests, weeds, and diseases will be controlled primarily through management practices, including physical, mechanical, and biological controls. When these practices are not sufficient, a biological, botanical, or synthetic substance approved for use on the National List may be used.
  • Operations must use organic seeds and other planting stock when available.
  • The use of genetic engineering, ionizing radiation, and sewage sludge is prohibited.

Livestock and Poultry Standards

  • Animals for slaughter must be raised under organic management from the last third of gestation, or no later than the second day of life for poultry.
  • Producers must feed livestock agricultural feed products that are 100 percent organic, but they may also provide allowed vitamin and mineral supplements.
  • Dairy animals must be managed organically for at least 12 months in order for milk or dairy products to be sold, labeled, or represented as organic.
  • Preventive management practices must be used to keep animals healthy. Producers may not withhold treatment from sick or injured animals. However, animals treated with a prohibited substance may not be sold as organic.
  • Ruminants must be out on pasture for the entire grazing season, but for not less than 120 days. These animals must also receive at least 30 percent of their feed, or dry matter intake (DMI), from pasture.
  • All organic livestock and poultry are required to have access to the outdoors year-round. Animals may only be temporarily confined due to documented environmental or health considerations.

Handling Standards

  • All non-agricultural ingredients, whether synthetic or non-synthetic, must be allowed according to the National List of Allowed and Prohibited Substances.
  • In a multi-ingredient product labeled as “organic,” all agricultural ingredients must be organically produced, unless the ingredients are not commercially available in organic form and listed on Section 205.606.
  • Handlers must prevent the commingling of organic with nonorganic products and protect organic products from contact with prohibited substances.

Essentially, organic food production is designed to enhance the quality of the food products, reduce pollution, eliminate synthetic additives, as well as promote and provide a safe, healthy, self-sustaining cycle of growth and production of our food system.

As I mentioned, to be labeled as organic, the product must go through inspection to make sure that all the standards were met.

A producer may also use an official USDA Organic seal if they have products that have met the requirements. The only exception is for producers who sell less than $5,000 a year in organic foods. These producers must follow the guidelines for organic food production, but they do not need to go through the certification process. They can label their products as organic, but they may not use the official USDA Organic seal.

While it is designed for simplification, the USDA also has guidelines on how organic foods are described on product labels. These labels describe different levels of “organic” based on how completely the product meets the organic standards. Below are the different labeling claim levels:[3]

  • 100 Percent Organic.This description is used on certified organic fruits, vegetables, eggs, meat, or other single-ingredient foods. It may also be used on multi-ingredient foods if all of the ingredients are certified organic, excluding salt and water. These may have a USDA seal.
  • If a multi-ingredient food is labeled organic, at least 95 percent of the ingredients are certified organic, excluding salt and water. The nonorganic items must be from a USDA list of approved additional ingredients. These also may have a USDA seal.
  • Made With Organic. If a multi-ingredient product has at least 70 percent certified organic ingredients, it may have a “made with organic” ingredients label. For example, a breakfast cereal might be labeled “made with organic oats.” The ingredient list must identify what ingredients are organic. These products may not carry a USDA seal.
  • Organic Ingredients. If less than 70 percent of a multi-ingredient product is certified organic, it may not be labeled as organic or carry a USDA seal. The ingredient list can indicate which ingredients are organic.

In addition to the different labeling standards, there are other claims that you will encounter on labels—“natural,” “free range,” “hormone free”—that can be misleading if you don’t know their official meaning. For example, chicken labeled “hormone free” might seem better, except that the USDA prohibits the use of hormones for ALL poultry. (Any hormone free chicken should also have the statement, “Federal regulations prohibit the use of hormones” on the label.) While each of these terms indicate that the products could contain no artificial colors, flavors, or preservatives, were raised under more humane conditions, or have no synthetic ingredients in its feed, it doesn’t necessarily mean that it has met the full standards to be considered “organic.”

Is Organic Food Healthier?

If there is one reason that people are interested in organic foods, it is because of the “health benefits” of eating these foods.

For years, the research lacked strong evidence that organic foods were significantly more nutritious than conventional foods.[4] However, despite this research, the organic food sector continued to grow, and “organic” became a trend and buzzword in the nutrition industry.

Over the last couple of years, the science has started to change a bit. In the conclusion of a paper from 2017, the authors suggest that “organic food production has several documented and potential benefits for human health and wider application of these production methods also in conventional agriculture would, therefore, most likely benefit human health.” (Mie, et al. 2017)

While the authors note that there is plenty of evidence that is either missing or inconclusive, there are some identified health benefits that come from organic food products.

Nutrient Content

Research has suggested that organic food products provide significantly greater levels of vitamins and minerals such as vitamin C, iron, magnesium, and phosphorus than nonorganic varieties of the same foods.[5]

In addition, organic crops have between 18–69% higher antioxidant activity and concentrations of a range of individual antioxidants, such as phenolic acids, anthocyanins, flavonoids, and carotenoids, which have been linked to a reduced risk of certain chronic diseases, such as cardiovascular and neurodegenerative diseases and certain cancers.[6], [7]

Fatty Acid Content

Due to the differences in requirements for feeding, organic livestock generally produces meat and dairy products with up to 50% higher levels of omega-3 fatty acids, the kind of fats that are more heart healthy than other fats.[8],[9],[10]

In addition, organic milk contains higher levels of total CLA and has higher iron and α-tocopherol, which have been associated with benefits for health.[11] More in line, conventional meat has significantly higher concentrations of the saturated fatty acids—myristic- and palmitic acid—which were linked to an increased risk of cardiovascular disease. [12] However, because meat and dairy only are a minor source of omega-3 fatty acids in the average diet, the nutritional impact of this effect is probably low.[13]

Chemical and Toxic Metal Exposure

Conventional crops have higher levels of the toxic metal cadmium and are four times more likely to contain detectable pesticide residues.[14] The long-term implications of exposure to higher amounts of these toxic metals and chemicals are still relatively unknown.

Antibiotic Resistant Bacteria

Because of the crowded and unsanitary conditions within conventional livestock practices, animals are routinely fed antibiotics to prevent illness. While it does impact the animals, it also poses a threat to global health as it contributes to antibiotic resistance that may make common infections and chronic diseases, such as E.coli and MRSA, much harder to treat.[15]

Application of the general principle of organic regulations may be helpful in mitigating the emerging problems and relevance of antibiotic resistance.

What Other Benefits Do Organic Foods Have?

When it comes to eating organic foods, sometimes the impetus isn’t only related to personal health. The market shifts with consumer values, as people “vote with their dollars” to support things they consider worthwhile. There are other factors that people consider when making the decision to purchase organic products. These factors tend to revolve around the activities and practices of organic producers.

Environment

Instead of relying on synthetic inputs such as pesticides and fertilizers, organic farms instead use natural approaches and fertilizers, such as crop rotation and manure, to control pests, diseases, and weeds.

As a result, organic farms tend to have more fertile soil, use less energy, and sequester more carbon. Research has shown that organic farms use 45% less energy, release 40% fewer carbon emissions, and foster 30% more biodiversity compared to conventional farming. [16], [17]

Animal Welfare

Compared with conventionally raised meats and poultry, organic farming offers more animal-friendly husbandry, providing more space and free range for the animals.

Economy

Since prices for organic foods are usually higher (due to higher resource demand), farmers get paid more money. The price difference, as compared to conventional products, has to be paid for by the consumer, but provides an increased number of jobs and job security through higher work-intensive, farm-based processing and direct marketing.[18]

Society

A lot of organic farms now offer additional services such as teaching farms and the inclusion of people with disabilities as a way to increase their reach, give back, and create a sustainable operation that is supported by consumers. Even more, the avoidance of pesticides and herbicides may be beneficial for the long-term health of the large population of farmworkers.

Are There Any Issues with Organic Foods?

The main issue with organic foods is that they almost always cost more than conventional food products. While the difference in expenses can vary from season to season and region to region, the USDA estimates that organically produced food can cost anywhere from ten to thirty percent more than conventionally mass-produced food. [19]

Despite the notion that organic farming practices are always better for the environment (not to discount the research I shared above), organics are not necessarily always the most sustainable option. For example, to control pests and weeds without using pesticides, organic farmers often lay down sheets of black plastic over the soil surrounding their crops. While this can help accelerate the rate of plant growth, save water, and prevent erosion, it creates an immense amount of waste. Biodegradable plastic, a more sustainable alternative, isn’t allowed under USDA Organic rules because it contains petroleum.[20]

Furthermore, when taking land utilization into consideration, organic farming practices may be disadvantageous. Since it does not use synthetic fertilizers or pesticides, organic agriculture has a 25% lower crop yield compared to conventional farming. With a demand to feed an ever-growing population, optimizing resources is crucial. Otherwise, there could be more deforestation and land clearing, which threatens biodiversity and reduces carbon stocks.[21]

Should You Buy Organic Foods?

It’s hard to argue that conventional farming practices—which prioritize productivity and profitability over environmental sustainability, animal welfare, and sometimes even human health—are an inferior method of growing and producing the foods that we eat.

But, is it worth paying higher prices for organic foods?

My honest opinion, after diving down deep into the topic, is that it’s really not a priority to buy organic foods in most cases.

Firstly, the health effects of eating organic foods are still pretty inconclusive. The evidence is starting to show a benefit, but only a small difference. In addition, I think that organic vs. nonorganic is like a drop in a bucket when it comes to optimizing your health and aesthetics, a small detail when most people struggle with bigger and more impactful changes. Much more important is your overall lifestyle choices. You could be eating organic chicken nuggets, French fries, hohos, and guzzling organic fruit juice and doing your body a disservice.

Secondly, there is a way to prioritize what products you might buy organic and what products you buy conventionally. Every year, the Environmental Working Group publishes two lists of fruits and vegetables that can guide your purchases.

The “Dirty Dozen”

The “Dirty Dozen” list is the produce items that contain elevated levels of pesticides that may be concerning. These are the produce items that you would WANT TO PURCHASE ORGANICALLY. The 2020 list includes:

  1. Strawberries
  2. Spinach
  3. Kale
  4. Nectarines
  5. Apples
  6. Grapes
  7. Peaches
  8. Cherries
  9. Pears
  10. Tomatoes
  11. Celery
  12. Potatoes

The “Clean Fifteen”

The “Clean Fifteen” list highlights produce containing little to no pesticides when grown conventionally. These are the items that you could feel a bit safer purchasing conventionally. The items on the 2020 list include:

  1. Avocados
  2. Sweet corn
  3. Pineapple
  4. Onions
  5. Papaya
  6. Sweet Peas (Frozen)
  7. Eggplant
  8. Asparagus
  9. Cauliflower
  10. Cantaloupes
  11. Broccoli
  12. Mushrooms
  13. Cabbage
  14. Honeydew Melon
  15. Kiwi

 

These lists are pretty helpful in guiding your choices if you want to have a middle-ground approach where you do buy some organics and some conventional.

Furthermore, I am not really factoring in my own moral or ethical beliefs into my rationale, and know that for some people, these factors are drivers of their decision to purchase organic. That is a very valid rationale. But, if it were solely for health and aesthetics, I don’t think it’s necessary to purchase organics.

If you can afford it, and are willing to pay the higher cost, go ahead. But organic foods are not the gateway to living a healthy or happy life. At the end of the day, eating enough produce and getting lean protein to meet your needs is the more important thing to focus on, regardless of whether it is organic or conventionally grown.


References

[1] https://www.ift.org/news-and-publications/news/2020/june/10/organic-food-sales-hit-$50-billion-in-2019

[2] https://www.ams.usda.gov/grades-standards/organic-standards

[3] https://www.mayoclinic.org/healthy-lifestyle/nutrition-and-healthy-eating/in-depth/organic-food/art-20043880

[4] Smith-Spangler, C., Brandeau, M. L., Hunter, G. E., Bavinger, J. C., Pearson, M., Eschbach, P. J., … & Olkin, I. (2012). Are organic foods safer or healthier than conventional alternatives? A systematic review. Annals of internal medicine, 157(5), 348-366.

[5] Crinnion, W. J. (2010). Organic foods contain higher levels of certain nutrients, lower levels of pesticides, and may provide health benefits for the consumer. Alternative Medicine Review, 15(1).

[6] Barański, M., Rempelos, L., Iversen, P. O., & Leifert, C. (2017). Effects of organic food consumption on human health; the jury is still out!. Food & nutrition research, 61(1), 1287333.

[7] Barański, M., Średnicka-Tober, D., Volakakis, N., Seal, C., Sanderson, R., Stewart, G. B., … & Gromadzka-Ostrowska, J. (2014). Higher antioxidant and lower cadmium concentrations and lower incidence of pesticide residues in organically grown crops: a systematic literature review and meta-analyses. British Journal of Nutrition, 112(5), 794-811.

[8] Średnicka-Tober, D., Barański, M., Seal, C. J., Sanderson, R., Benbrook, C., Steinshamn, H., … & Cozzi, G. (2016). Higher PUFA and n-3 PUFA, conjugated linoleic acid, α-tocopherol and iron, but lower iodine and selenium concentrations in organic milk: a systematic literature review and meta-and redundancy analyses. British Journal of Nutrition, 115(6), 1043-1060.

[9] Średnicka-Tober, D., Barański, M., Seal, C., Sanderson, R., Benbrook, C., Steinshamn, H., … & Cozzi, G. (2016). Composition differences between organic and conventional meat: a systematic literature review and meta-analysis. British Journal of Nutrition, 115(6), 994-1011.

[10] Mie, A., Andersen, H. R., Gunnarsson, S., Kahl, J., Kesse-Guyot, E., Rembiałkowska, E., … & Grandjean, P. (2017). Human health implications of organic food and organic agriculture: a comprehensive review. Environmental Health, 16(1), 111.

[11]  Średnicka-Tober, D., Barański, M., Seal, C. J., Sanderson, R., Benbrook, C., Steinshamn, H., … & Cozzi, G. (2016). Higher PUFA and n-3 PUFA, conjugated linoleic acid, α-tocopherol and iron, but lower iodine and selenium concentrations in organic milk: a systematic literature review and meta-and redundancy analyses. British Journal of Nutrition, 115(6), 1043-1060.

[12] Średnicka-Tober, D., Barański, M., Seal, C., Sanderson, R., Benbrook, C., Steinshamn, H., … & Cozzi, G. (2016). Composition differences between organic and conventional meat: a systematic literature review and meta-analysis. British Journal of Nutrition, 115(6), 994-1011.

[13] Mie, A., Andersen, H. R., Gunnarsson, S., Kahl, J., Kesse-Guyot, E., Rembiałkowska, E., … & Grandjean, P. (2017). Human health implications of organic food and organic agriculture: a comprehensive review. Environmental Health, 16(1), 111.

[14] Barański, M., Średnicka-Tober, D., Volakakis, N., Seal, C., Sanderson, R., Stewart, G. B., … & Gromadzka-Ostrowska, J. (2014). Higher antioxidant and lower cadmium concentrations and lower incidence of pesticide residues in organically grown crops: a systematic literature review and meta-analyses. British Journal of Nutrition, 112(5), 794-811.

[15] Mie, A., Andersen, H. R., Gunnarsson, S., Kahl, J., Kesse-Guyot, E., Rembiałkowska, E., … & Grandjean, P. (2017). Human health implications of organic food and organic agriculture: a comprehensive review. Environmental Health, 16(1), 111.

[16] https://blogs.ei.columbia.edu/2020/02/05/organic-sustainable-food/

[17] https://rodaleinstitute.org/

[18] von Koerber, K., Bader, N., & Leitzmann, C. (2017). Wholesome nutrition: an example for a sustainable diet. Proceedings of the Nutrition Society, 76(1), 34-41.

[19] https://money.howstuffworks.com/personal-finance/budgeting/how-much-more-does-organic-food-cost-and-why.htm#:~:text=Organic%20foods%20are%20more%20expensive,than%20conventionally%20mass%2Dproduced%20food.

[20] https://blogs.ei.columbia.edu/2020/02/05/organic-sustainable-food/

[21] https://blogs.ei.columbia.edu/2020/02/05/organic-sustainable-food/

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