What does 100% Organic Food Really Mean?
Do you need to eat organic food? Is it really better for you or just another marketing claim? Since organic food is typically more expensive than conventional food, you are probably considering if it is worth the extra cost. The next time you are questioning the “organic” label at the store, here is what it means for your health.
What does buying “organic” mean?
In order for a food to meet the USDA standards for organic it must be grown with organic farming methods. These methods are different from conventional agriculture. Generally, it means that no synthetic or sewage sludge fertilizers can be used. Synthetic pesticides, antibiotics, and hormones are also not allowed.1
Organic food has fewer pesticides and chemical residue than conventional food. But, there is no concrete evidence that these substances are harmful to human health at a small dose. Most of the research on pesticides and health has been done on workers who directly handle pesticides, not on minimal exposure for the general population.2,3
Additionally, there are claims that organic food is more nutritious or better for the environment. New studies have found that neither of these is true. Organic fruits and vegetables have about the same nutrient content as conventional ones, with the exception of a few minerals and antioxidants.4,5,6 Organic farming practices are labor intensive and may cause more environmental harm than conventional methods.7
Does “organic” mean NON-GMO?
GMO stands for genetically modified organisms, basically it is a food that has had its DNA modified in some way. Organic and non-GMO are not the same. If a product is labeled 100% Organic or USDA Certified Organic, this means it is also free of GMOs. If the product states “made with organic ingredients,” it may contain GMOs.8
You may see the “non-GMO” label everywhere these days, but there are only 10 approved GMO crops available in the United States.9
- Sugar beets
Since consumers are looking for non-GMO foods, many manufacturers label products this way even if they don’t contain any of the above ingredients.
What is the difference between “natural” and “organic?”
Along with organic, you may also see the word “natural” on food labels. But, the word natural does not have an official definition by the FDA. It does not mean non-GMO, pesticide-free, or organic.
One thing to note about “natural” is the difference between natural flavors and artificial flavors in foods. Natural flavors are made from natural sources, but they are still modified in the lab to be added to as flavoring to food. Artificial flavors are not made from natural sources and are synthetically made.10
Final verdict ...Is it worth the extra cost?
There is no strong evidence to support eating only organic food for health or environmental reasons. If you are concerned about pesticide residue in food, the Environmental Working Group publishes a list of the most contaminated fruits and vegetables called “The Dirty Dozen.” Consider buying the organic version of those 12 fruits and vegetables. The rest is up to your discretion.
For true health, you need to eat a variety of whole foods, fruits and vegetables, organic or not. A well-balanced, affordable diet is more important than trying to eat exclusively organic food.
- Organic Production/Organic Food: Information Access Tools | Alternative Farming Systems Information Center| NAL | USDA.
- Epa US, OCSPP. Food and Pesticides. February 2013.
- Int J Environ Res Public Health. 2011;8(5):1402-1419.
- Am J Clin Nutr. 2010;92(1):203-210.
- Br J Nutr. 2014;112(5):794-811.
- Am J Clin Nutr. 2009;90(3):680-685.
- Science Daily. December 2018.
- Can GMOs Be Used in Organic Products? | Agricultural Marketing Service.
- Current GMO Crops | GMO Answers.
- EWG-Environmental Working Group. Synthetic Ingredients in Natural Flavors and Natural Flavors in Artificial Flavors.
- Tags: Diet & Recipes
- Blog Contributor