Trending – Organic Foods

In this post, we look at the popular organic food labels and explore what it means (and doesn’t mean) for an ingredient to be organic certified. 

What is organic food?

For the purposes of this post, we will focus on the definition used but the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) and the USDA organic certification requirements.

Organic refers to the methods employed to grow foods and raise animals. Typically, farmers can only use naturally-derived substances to cultivate crops. Farmers may only feed animals organic feed and forage and do not administer antibiotics or hormone treatments to animals. 

Is the term “organic” regulated?

In the US, the term “USDA organic” is regulated by the USDA and must meet USDA requirements to use the label. 

How are organically grown foods different than conventionally grown foods?

Organically grown food will primarily rely on preventative practices and crop rotation to help maintain soil fertility and manage pests, weeds, and diseases.

Organic produce should use organic seeds. However, conventionally grown seeds are allowed if organic isn’t available. 

If preventative measures do not work, farmers can use plant-derived agrochemicals such as pesticides and insecticides. Occasionally, farmers may also use approved synthetic agrochemicals. 

While conventional agricultural practices involve many preventative methods, farmers are permitted to use synthetically derived agrochemicals to ensure crops survive. 

As a result, we lose less conventionally grown produce to blight than organically grown produce.  

Does organic produce use pesticides in the growing process?

Organic farming primarily relies  on naturally-derived pesticides and some synthetically-derived products like pheromones and other farming practices like crop rotation and limiting monoculture to protect crops (1,2).

Is there pesticide residue on organic produce? 

Yes, there will often be pesticide residue on organic produce. 

How is organically raised meat different than conventionally raised meat?

Farmers only feed organically-raised animals organic foods and forage. Animals must have access to their natural environment and behavior patterns, such as grazing pastures. Additionally, animals cannot have antibiotic or hormone treatments, meaning preventative measures such as vaccination are imperative to ensuring animal health. 

Conventionally raised animals will eat conventionally grown and foraged foods. There is less emphasis on providing a natural environment for the animals. Animals will also receive antibiotic and hormone treatments as needed, for optimal health and growth.

If a product contains more than one ingredient, can it contain conventionally and organically grown ingredients and still be classified as organic?

In the US, a product will not contain a USDA organic seal unless it contains only approved organic and non-organic (e.g., yogurt enzymes) ingredients.

A product can say “made with organic ingredients” as long as at least 70% of the product is made using USDA-approved organic products. It will contain a USDA-accredited certifier on the label but will not have the USDA organic seal. 

Are organic foods better for my health?

While many folks believe organic foods will improve health, there is no evidence to support this belief fully (1,2).

Furthermore, a healthy lifestyle that includes a diet rich in fruits, vegetables, and proteins, regardless of how they’re grown, is known to reduce adverse health outcomes. 

Are organically grown foods better for the environment?

On a small scale, organically grown foods can be better for the environment. However, on a large scale, organic growing practices in their current state would cause the additional loss of natural habitats and increase the price of food in the developing world, increasing global food insecurity. 

While organic food production does have positives, scaling organic food production to feed the global population would require more technological advancements and innovations that are currently not feasible

The good news. 

Both organic and conventional foods provide safe, excellent nutrition. The expansion of organic programs will help us learn more about different and potentially better food production methods. In the meantime, our current conventional processes provide food security to the population. 

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