Organic is a term that is often misunderstood, or arguably, not understood at all by most people. There was a point in time when I didn’t know what the word meant beyond my assumption that if it was organic, it was healthy. But I had no idea why. Are you equally confused as I once was? This post will break it down for you; what does “organic” mean, and how does the wording imply the differences in products?
The word organic refers to a variety of definitions.
- If you’re one for philosophy, it defines relationships between things that fit together harmoniously and naturally.
- If you’re into chemistry, it defines any molecule made up of carbon.
- If you’re into real food, it generally defines whole-food fruits and vegetables (or food products made from the latter) that are grown without pesticides, synthetic fertilizer, genetically modified organisms*, and when describing animal products, means they were also raised without growth hormones or antibiotics.
Surprise! All of these things are relevant to organic food.
I know the debate is sizzling hot about whether or not non-organic farming practices are harmful to humans, but the bottom line is it certainly isn’t better than what organic farming stands for. Growing food with concepts derived from nature alone, and not with synthetic chemicals or methods requiring a science lab, simply makes a hell of a lot more sense in my opinion.
While I’m your average millennial skeptic and don’t typically rely on government-subsidized agencies to tell me what’s best for my health, I believe the USDA has done a pretty good job regulating the navigation around organic labeling. The USDA breaks down organic labeling into 3 categories:
- 100% organic: these products truly contain only organically grown ingredients, with salt and water excluded from this requirement. 100% organic products will typically be labeled as such, and would be expected to display the USDA organic seal (pictured at bottom of page).
- Organic: This label is similar to the first, but only requires that 95% of the ingredients are organic, again, excluding salt and water. These foods also typically display the USDA Organic seal.
- “Made with organic…”: Producers are allowed to use this statement on products of which at least 70% of the ingredients are certified organic (excluding salt and water). Items that fall into this category are not permitted to state vaguely “made with organic ingredients,” but may say “made with organic x, y, and z” up to 3 listed organic ingredients. This category including anything that is between 70 and 95 percent organic cannot contain the USDA organic seal. The ingredient information panel often specifies which ingredients are organic.
I have found several reasons to buy organic food when I am able. Avoidance of toxic pesticides is the most important factor to me. Pesticides have been found in most groundwater sources, from which more than 50% of Americans receive their drinking water. Pesticides are not something that is filtered out by conventional systems. These toxic chemicals that are spread over non-organic crops also travel in the air, polluting our most vital resource.
A professor in one of my pharmacy courses told us a story about the effects of pesticides on animals in a really unbiased way. It was an example modeling the fact that toxins accumulate in animal fat. So he was not necessarily saying anything negative about pesticides; it was purely matter-of-fact. He said that the city I live in, Madison, WI, employs local policy to spray city lawns with pesticides and herbicides regularly throughout the summers to eliminate any organisms (plant or insects) that impede grass growth. Geese that eat the greenery and insects ingest the chemicals and absorb them. It concentrates in the birds and is stored in their body fat as they graze throughout the warm months. When winter comes and food is more scarce, they rapidly burn and lose a large percentage of their body fat. The toxins are simultaneously released from these fat stores and circulate in the bloodstream. By this point the chemical has concentrated so much that the toxins released overwhelm the detoxification system in the birds, and they have been observed dropping dead from mid-air. I know the science-heavy corporations insist there is “not enough evidence” to conclude this stuff is harmful, but I don’t understand how we can see it killing animals who eat a much smaller volume than humans and ignorantly deny that it has any effect on our own bodies.
Additionally, organic farming supports biodiversity and the harmonious interdependence of plants and animals in ecosystems. I have not yet had the chance to visit an organic farm, but have seen and heard accounts of how different they feel, look, smell, and sound compared to conventional farms. Conventional farming aims to eliminate any and all life sources that may interfere with the growth of one particular crop. This is beneficial for the volume of the target crop, say corn, for example. However, there is eventually virtually nothing growing on that acreage besides corn, where there was once insects and worms, grasses and shrubbery, etc. There is no question that organisms in natural habitat depend on each other for optimal survival – I mean we’ve all heard of the circle of life, right? This stuff is that basic.
As a result, organic produce truly even tastes better than its conventional counterparts. Taste is a more subtle motivation for buying organic that the others I’ve mentioned, and it could be a matter of opinion to some. However, there’s a reason for the difference. Soil that grows organic produce is rich in micronutrients and vitamins that plants need. Diversity of microorganisms like bacteria and fungi, as well as insects and small animals that produce nutrient-rich waste, contributes to the richness of organic soil (which is why synthetic fertilizer is not needed for organic crops) and the plant is able to use these nutrients to grow and provide us with more nutrient-dense food. Wiping out of all life that is not the target crop robs the ecosystem of the chance to be biodiverse and rich in nutrients for growth.
Expense is the reason I encounter most frequently that is responsible for people choosing to not buy organic, which is absolutely understandable. I also come from an area where there is not a Whole Foods in sight unless you are willing to make a two-hour drive, so accessibility can make it difficult, too. My recommendation is if cost is a barrier, aim to invest in organic produce when shopping “the dirty dozen,” and don’t worry about it so much for the others. Many of you have probably heard of this, but these 12 foods are the species that are known to absorb the most toxic pesticides when farmed conventionally:
- Bell peppers
My tip is to buy organic produce frozen if it works for your plans to use it. Contrary to popular belief, flash frozen produce often retains more nutrients than you might find in fresh produce that has continued to ripen while being transported. Frozen organic produce is usually less expensive than buying it organic and fresh. If you can find a local farmer’s market that supports organic farming, I highly encourage you to invest your dollars there. Every dollar spent is a vote for what you value. I spend more money on high-quality food now, but compensate by spending less on trendy makeup, or clothing that I will only wear a few times before finding tears in them, or becoming uninterested. My vote with my dollars supports farmers who produce food that supports human health, biodiversity, and sustainable living.
*There are some specifications about USDA Organic labeling and what it means regarding GMO contamination in USDA-sealed products. I’ll discuss this in another post, as GMOs require an extensive conversation. For this discussion’s purpose, I will leave my conclusion that the USDA does not consider GMO use a part of organic farming, and that there is process-based policy to minimize contamination in USDA-sealed organic foods.