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  • Aryane Oar, MS, RDN, CD

What you need to know about organic foods

Updated: May 4



Dietitians are often asked if organic foods are a better option than conventional foods. Over the past two decades or so, we have seen a significant increase in the demand for organic foods[1]. Nowadays, we can find organic products not only in specialty stores but also in conventional supermarkets. According to the 2019 U.S. Organic Industry Survey released by the Organic Trade Association, organic food sales in the U.S. reached $47.9 billion in 2018, a 5.9% increase from the previous year and a 125% increase when compared to sales in 2009 ($21.3 billion)[2]. It is the fastest-growing food sector in North America and Europe, although it only covers ~ 1% of global agricultural land and only contributes ~ 1 to 8% of total food sales in most North American and European countries[3].


But, are organic foods, in fact, a better choice than their counterparts or is it just hype? Before answering this question, let’s make sure that we are on the same page when it comes to the term “organic”.


What is organic?

The labeling term “organic” was defined by the U. S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) and it is about the way the crops and animals are grown. Federal guidelines address several factors, such as soil quality, animal raising practices, pest and weed control, and use of additives[4]. Approved methods integrate cultural, biological, and mechanical practices that foster cycling of resources, promote ecological balance, and conserve biodiversity. Prohibited substances include most synthetic fertilizers and pesticides[5]. If you are curious, you can view the National List of Allowed and Prohibited Substances here. Also, sewage sludge, irradiation, and genetic engineering (to improve disease or pest resistance or to improve crop yields) may not be used[5].


Are the terms “organic” and “natural” interchangeable?

No, they are not the same. A formal definition for the term “natural” has not been established by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA). According to the FDA, the term “natural” means that nothing artificial or synthetic (including all color additives regardless of source) is added, other than what is normally expected to be in that food. Note that this policy does not refer to food production methods, such as the use of pesticides[6].


The “organic” seal

Only products that contain at least 95% of organic ingredients can display on their labels the USDA organic seal that we are very familiar with. Products with at least 70% organically produced ingredients may state “Made with organic [insert the name of the ingredient]” or, those containing less than 70% organic contents may specify which ingredients are organic in their ingredients list, but these last two categories must not include the USDA organic seal[7].


So, going back to our initial question: are organic foods a better choice than conventional foods? Well, unfortunately, it is very controversial and there is no clear-cut answer here, so let’s explore its several shades of gray.


Nutrient content

Scientific evidence showing that organic produce is more nutritious than conventional food is not conclusive[1]. Some studies do show some potential health benefits of organic foods, with possibly higher antioxidant and lower cadmium and pesticide levels found in organic crops, and higher omega-3 concentrations found in organic meat and dairy products[3]. However, there is limited information to draw conclusions. And, if food safety is concerning to you, keep in mind that the health benefits of a meal pattern rich in a variety of fruits and vegetables, regardless of the production method used, outweigh possible exposure to pesticides.


Environmental impact

The discussion around organic foods goes beyond their nutrient content. Organic farming methods show many potential benefits, such as higher biodiversity and improved soil and water quality, which explain why many believe they are less damaging to the environment. On the other hand, critics believe that organic farming requires more land to produce the same amount of food as conventional farms (lower productivity). Also, it has increased labor and animal feed costs, contributing to its higher price to consumers[8].


The take-home message

Whether you opt for organic foods or not is a personal decision. If you (and your pocket!) feel more comfortable with this choice, go for it. However, from a nutritional standpoint, note there is limited scientific evidence showing that organic is more nutritious when compared to conventionally grown foods.


Tips:

  • If you are seeking organic choices, you can get the best bang for your buck if you choose organic produce that is in season. 

  • Also, consider buying organic foods from your local farmer’s market. They will be locally grown and with reduced transportation costs, which may lead to lower prices. 

  • It is unlikely that produce that contains a thick peel that will be discarded, such as the peel of bananas and oranges, will have pesticide residues in their edible parts. Also, you can discard the outer leaves of leafy vegetables to reduce contaminants. 

  • And, as always, wash and scrub fresh fruits and vegetables thoroughly under running water. It does not wash away all the contaminants, but it helps remove dirt, bacteria, and possible traces of chemicals from their surface.



References:


1. Barański M, Rempelos L, Iversen PO, Leifert C. Effects of organic food consumption on human health; the jury is still out! Food & Nutrition Research. 2017;61(1):1287333. doi:10.1080/16546628.2017.1287333.


2. Organic Trade Association’s 2019 Organic Industry Survey Conducted 1/25/2019–3/26/2019 (Consumer Sales). https://ota.com/sites/default/files/indexed_files/Fig2.2_rev.pdf. Accessed February 29, 2020.


3. Seufert V, Ramankutty N. Many shades of gray—The context-dependent performance of organic agriculture. Science Advances. 2017;3(3). doi:10.1126/sciadv.1602638.


4. USDA. Organic 101: What the USDA Organic Label Means. https://www.usda.gov/media/blog/2012/03/22/organic-101-what-usda-organic-label-means. Accessed February 29, 2020.


5. USDA. Organic Production & Handling Standards. https://www.ams.usda.gov/publications/content/organic-production-handling-standards. Accessed February 29, 2020.


6. FDA. Use of the Term Natural on Food Labeling. https://www.fda.gov/food/food-labeling-nutrition/use-term-natural-food-labeling. Accessed February 29, 2020.


7. USDA. Organic Labeling Standards. https://www.ams.usda.gov/grades-standards/organic-labeling-standards. Accessed February 29, 2020.


8. Forman J, Silverstein J. Organic Foods: Health and Environmental Advantages and Disadvantages. Pediatrics. 2012;130(5). doi:10.1542/peds.2012-2579.

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