What it means to be organic
Learn the ins and outs of the organic health movement.
April 6, 2017 - Author: Chloe Updegraff, Michigan State University Extension and Taylor Alfano, Dietetic Intern
From fruits and vegetables to soap and clothes, it is becoming increasingly popular to see families moving toward an "organic lifestyle.” Let’s discuss the truth behind the organic trend and how it can fit into everyone’s home.
What is organic?
In order for a product to be labeled organic, it must be produced through approved methods by the USDA. These approved methods set forth by the USDA are in place to “promote healthy soil conditions, water quality, and to help conserve wetlands, woodlands and wildlife.” Organic does not mean complete omission of pesticides; rather, organic practice creates a framework for farmers to use only products and methods that are healthy for the environment.
What about the nutrients?
In many cases, consumers think that purchasing organic means they are receiving a higher nutrient-containing product. However, there is not significant research to support this. When it comes down to it, the nutrient composition of organic vs. conventional food is relatively the same. The trouble with studies surrounding plant nutrients lies within the many variables that can alter nutrient content such as: plant species, weather, and soil makeup. While there is some emerging evidence that may support a higher nutrient level in organic foods, overall, there is not significant research to support that eating organic over conventional is more nutritionally beneficial.
Is organic food healthier for my environment?
In a word: yes. The USDA has taken steps to ensure that producers and distributers have guidelines to follow to ensure organic integrity and operation sustainability. The guidelines include soil fertility and managing pests, as well as livestock living conditions and processing practices. These organic methods promote a healthy environment. Often people choose to purchase organic produce to decrease their exposure to pesticides and other residues. Regardless of whether or not the food is organic, residues do not exceed government safety thresholds.
Are the terms “all-natural,” “locally grown,” and “organic” interchangeable?
These terms are often used interchangeably, but they are not the same. Organic foods are closely regulated and meet certain criteria throughout the growth and production stages to be labeled as “organic.” There is not strict regulation on the terms “natural” or “all-natural.” If the product does not contain added color, artificial flavors or any synthetic substances, companies are allowed to label their foods as natural. However, these terms do not equate to safety regulations.
The term “locally grown” speaks for itself. Purchasing locally at a farmer’s market or neighbor’s roadside stand is a great way to support your community. Even though local produce may not have the “organic” seal, they most likely are using earth-friendly practices to grow their produce. You are also helping the environment in this way by reducing fuel and other shipping impacts that come from transporting produce from other areas of the country (or other countries) to your community.
What should I buy organic?
In a recent article published in Today’s Dietitian, Barbara Ruhs, MS, RDN, LDN states, “The food grown in the United States is among the safest food in the world. There's much more harm in saying there are pesticides or other dangerous chemicals on our fruits and vegetables than there is in encouraging people to eat more fruits and vegetables.”
Being aware of the function of organic purchasing and being able to stay within your family budget is the battle many consumers face. There are some things to think about when it comes to buying organic:
Know your produce
If you choose to purchase organic produce, look for organic products that you will consume as a “whole produce” item. For example, it would be more beneficial to purchase organic romaine lettuce, apples, and strawberries than it is to purchase an organic watermelon or orange. Why? This is because you will eat the entire romaine stalk, apple, or strawberry. Whereas with a watermelon or an orange, you are discarding the outer skin. The outer skin of the product is where the pesticide residue exposure could exist.
Take the time to wash your produce
Ensuring that you rinse your produce before eating it is a key step in food safety. This helps wash off residues or bacteria that may have accumulated on the produce during growth, harvest, or shipment.
Processed is processed
Is it healthier to buy organic cookies or cereal rather than conventional cookies or cereal? No! Promotion of a healthy diet is formed around the theory that decreasing processed food ultimately sets us up for the healthiest scenario. This is due to high sugar, sodium, and preservative content in most processed foods. None of these facts change when it comes to buying organic. Remember that label reading skills are always important for anything prepackaged. Just because the product is labeled organic does not mean it is more nutritious.
Organic food, while great for our environment, does not necessarily mean more nutrients. Eating nutritious food from a variety of food groups is a great way to improve overall health and wellbeing, and choosing local and non-processed foods will give you the best bang for your buck.