What we know today about organic food

Confusion continues among consumers regarding what “organic” means.

Over the past several years, national surveys, such as those by the Consumer Reports National Research Center in 2014, have demonstrated that consumers often have incorrect perceptions about organic food and National Organic Program (NOP) Certification. Many people associate the word “organic” with words or phrases such as “chemical free”, “safe” and “natural”. While these associations may hold some truth, they are not guaranteed by the NOP organic food label. Consumers of operations such as the local farmer’s market, or other organic retail markets, should know the facts about labelling and organic foods before making their purchases.

What exactly does “certified organic” mean? Food with a United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) Certified Organic label is food that has been produced according to a certain set of standards. To summarize these standards, organic producers must follow specific practices regarding livestock handling, pest control, crop production, soil and water quality, and food additives. 

For example, many people are surprised to learn that organic production is allowed to use certain approved pesticides on crops. The National List of Allowed and Prohibited Substances is available to the public and identifies these synthetic and non-synthetic substances that are permitted in organic crop and livestock production. Additionally, the Organic Material Review Institute offers a website to check if a product has been verified as allowable by the NOP for use of organic production.

The USDA also states that certified organic farmers and food processors have a number of responsibilities including, but not limited to:

  • Supporting animal health and welfare
  • Providing animals with access to the outdoors so that animals can exercise natural behaviors
  • Not using genetically modified ingredients
  • Using only organically approved materials

If the farmer or producer complies with these regulations and responsibilities and are awarded USDA NOP certification, they can legally call their operation “organic”.

With this information in mind, one can see that the word “organic” is not interchangeable with “natural” or “safe” in regards to food. The USDA definition of natural is a product containing no artificial ingredient or added color and is only minimally processed. They define minimally processed as the product was processed in a manner that does not fundamentally alter the product. In order to display a natural label, the label must also include a statement explaining the meaning of the term in regards to the specific product. For example, it could say “no artificial ingredients”. Unlike organic, there is no certification process for “natural”; only correct labeling is required. These labels can be confusing, but understanding these labels can help consumers make the most of their purchases and make shopping a little easier.

Do these labels mean anything in terms of food safety? Currently, research regarding organic versus conventional food safety is fairly limited, and much of the research that is available is conflicting. Absolute claims that organically produced food is safer than conventionally produced food are not scientifically sound.

However, according to research summarized by the Mayo Clinic (also accessible from the USDA National Agricultural Library), the following has been demonstrated in regards to organic vs. conventional production:

  • Pesticide residues are found on both organic and conventional produce, but, on average, appear to be lower in concentration on organic products. Important to consider, however, is that while many believe food is safer when not contaminated by pesticide residues, there is insufficient scientific data to make any conclusions. Legal pesticide residue levels currently in place, regardless of production method, have not been shown to harm human health. As new pesticide formulations are used, and different combinations of pesticides are applied to crops, new research will be needed to identify if there are increased risks or health hazards to humans and animals.
  • Contamination, such as with microorganisms or toxic metals (lead, arsenic, etc.), has been found to occur similarly among organic and conventionally produced foods.
  • Because certified organic production does not allow the use of antibiotics, however, organic products have demonstrated lower incidence of antibiotic resistant microorganisms when compared to conventional products.
  • Food additives are usually present in lesser amounts in organic food versus conventional food, but most food additives have not been proven to have toxic side effects.

Therefore, scientific evidence proving claims that we may have heard about organics, including that they are much safer or healthier, is currently not available. Great strides have been made in research regarding organic vs. conventional production, but there is still a lot of research to be done before we can make such statements. 

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