What is organic food?
Food that has been labeled "organic" has been grown or raised without chemical fertilizers, pest killers (pesticides), weed killers, or drugs.
This means that farmers and ranchers who grow organic food:
- Use only natural pest killers, such as plant oils, soap, fungus-eating bacteria, or bugs that eat other bugs.
- Use only natural fertilizers, such as manure or compost.
- Feed their animals only organic food.
- Don't give their animals antibiotics or growth hormones.
- Don't use irradiation, which means using X-rays or other types of rays to kill pests, change the way plants grow, or keep produce from spoiling as fast.
Some countries, including the United States, have rules that govern when a farmer or rancher may use the "organic" label. Before a grower can use that label, a government inspector goes to the farm to make sure that the rules are being followed.
Don't assume that food labeled "natural," "sustainable," "hormone-free," or "free-range" is organic. The U.S. does not regulate the use of those labels, so anyone can use them.
What is the organic label?
Picture of the organic food seal adapted from the USDA National Organic Program. Available online: http://www.ams.usda.gov.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) has developed labeling rules for organic foods. A seal and the word "organic" can be displayed on organic foods. This use is voluntary, so some organic foods may not be labeled as such.
Single-ingredient foods. The word "organic" and the seal may appear on fruits and vegetables and on packages of meat, cartons of milk or eggs, cheese, and other single-ingredient foods that are grown or raised organically.
Multi-ingredient foods. All ingredients or some of the ingredients in a food may be organic. Look for the following:
- If all ingredients are organic, the seal and "100% organic" are displayed.
- If 95% to 100% of the ingredients are organic, the seal and "organic" are displayed. Any remaining ingredients must consist of approved nonagricultural substances or nonorganically produced agricultural products.
- If at least 70% of the ingredients are organic, the seal is not displayed, but the package may say "made with organic ingredients."
- If less than 70% of the ingredients are organic, no organic claims can be made. But specific organically produced ingredients may be listed on the side panel of the package.
Why does organic food usually cost more?
A regular food item that costs $1 may cost $1.50 or even $2—twice as much—when it's grown organically. There are many reasons for the higher cost, including these:
- Many organic farms are much smaller than nonorganic food farms.
- It takes more labor to grow plants and raise animals without the help of chemical fertilizers, pesticides (chemicals that kill pests), and drugs.
- It can cost organic cattle ranchers twice as much to feed their animals, because they must use organic feed.
- Conventional, or nonorganic, farmers and ranchers often get money from the government so that they can sell their food for lower prices. Many organic farms are too small to get this help from the government.
Although organic food can cost more, you may be able to save money by shopping around.
You may be better off buying from local farms and ranches, whether they're certified organic or not. Many small farms use organic methods but cannot afford to become certified. Food from local farms is also likely to be fresher, which means it will taste better and may even cost less. Visit farmers' markets to find locally grown food.
What do you need to know about organic food?
More and more organic foods are showing up in the produce aisles of local grocery stores. It can be confusing to know when to buy organic versions of your favorite foods. Many people buy organic food because they are worried about the environment. And many people buy organic food to avoid chemicals, especially pesticides, in their food.
You may have these questions about organic food:
- Is it safer? Foods with the organic label have much less pesticide residue compared with most nonorganic foods. Foods grown with pesticides can have small amounts of pesticide left on the food when it gets to the store. Studies have shown that being exposed to large amounts of pesticides can cause harm. But they have not shown that the amounts of pesticides left on most nonorganic foods are enough to cause harm.
- Is it more nutritious? There is not enough evidence to say that organic food is more nutritious than nonorganic food.
- Is it better for children? Children may be more sensitive to pesticides because they are still growing. And they eat more food for their weight than adults do. Products such as organic milk and organic baby food can be good choices for your peace of mind.
- Does it taste better? There is no evidence that organic food tastes better just because it's organic. But organic food is usually fresher, because it doesn't contain preservatives and it needs to be eaten sooner. Fresher food usually tastes better.
- Is it better for the environment? In general, yes. Many organic farmers and ranchers work to conserve water and soil. Pesticides can kill birds and small animals and make it hard for them to reproduce, so using less of these toxic chemicals is good for the environment.
- Is it better for animals? Maybe, but conditions vary. For example, organic ranchers must let their cattle graze in open pastures. But some ranchers do that only part of the time, confining the animals to corrals the rest of the time.
How can you avoid pesticides on your food?
You can avoid pesticides by buying organic food. But organic food can be hard to find, and it often costs more.
If you are worried about pesticides but want to save money, you could buy organic versions of only the foods you eat most often. Or you could buy organic versions of only those foods that have the most pesticides when grown on traditional farms.
According to the Environmental Working Group, a nonprofit group that analyzes the results of government pesticide testing in the U.S., these are the 12 fruits and vegetables with the highest pesticide levels, in order from most to least:
- Bell Peppers
- Kale/Collard Greens
- Grapes (Imported)
© 2009 Environmental Working Group. Adapted with permission.
If you don't want to buy organic food, there are other steps you can take to lower the amount of pesticides on your food:
- Wash raw fruits and vegetables under running water before eating them. Use a scrub brush when it will not bruise the food. Otherwise rub the food by hand to clean it.
- Peel apples, pears, and peaches, especially before you give them to children.
Remember that eating nonorganic fruits and vegetables, even those with higher pesticide levels, is better than not eating fruits and vegetables at all.
What does GMO mean?
GMO stands for "genetically modified organism," which is a plant or animal whose DNA has been changed in a lab. Scientists can take genes from one type of organism and put them in another. Many people believe that GMOs make food healthier or last longer. Many of the foods in our food supply contain GMOs.
But some people worry that not enough testing has been done to know whether GMOs are harmful. In most countries, foods that are labeled "organic" are not supposed to contain any GMOs.
You may see food labels that say "no GMO," "non-GMO," or "GMO free." This is a claim by the maker that the product does not contain any GMOs. There is some debate, though, about how accurate such labels are. Organic foods may come in contact with GMOs even though the farmer or grower follows the rules for organic farming.
Other Places To Get Help
|National Agricultural Library: Nutrition.gov|
|10301 Baltimore Avenue|
|Beltsville, MD 20705|
This Web site has information on nutrition, healthy eating, exercise, and food safety. You can use an e-mail form to ask a food-related question.
|USDA Center for Nutrition Policy and Promotion|
|3101 Park Center Drive|
|Alexandria, VA 22302-1594|
The USDA food guide website provides many options to help people make healthy food choices and to be active every day. Enter your age, gender, and activity level to get a food plan specific to your needs. You can also print out worksheets for tracking your progress and goals. On this website, you'll find answers to many of your questions about healthy eating.
Other Works Consulted
- Dodd JL, Taft Bayerl C (2008). Is it really organic and is it healthier section of Nutrition in the community. In LK Mahan, S Escott-Stump, eds., Krause's Food and Nutrition Therapy, 12th ed., p. 331. St. Louis: Saunders Elsevier.
- Environmental Working Group (2010). Shopper's Guide to Pesticides . Available online: http://static.foodnews.org/pdf/EWG-shoppers-guide.pdf.
- U.S. Department of Agriculture (2008). National Organic Program: Background and history. Available online: http://www.ams.usda.gov/AMSv1.0/getfile?dDocName=STELDEV3004443&acct=nopgeninfo.
|Primary Medical Reviewer||Sarah Marshall, MD - Family Medicine|
|Specialist Medical Reviewer||Rhonda O'Brien, MS, RD, CDE - Certified Diabetes Educator|
|Last Revised||February 4, 2011|
Last Revised: February 4, 2011
Author: Healthwise Staff
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