What does organic really mean when it comes to the quality of our food and how it is produced? Is it really worth the hype, and not to mention the price of purchasing organic foods and products prepared with organic ingredients?
Read below to weigh the pros and cons of organic food and decide how you feel about what organic really means.
What is Organic Food?
If we go back to our grade school chemistry days, the term 'organic' is defined as all things related to or from living matter.
This is one way to define organic, the other refers to a regulatory label with a strict set of rules and qualifications governed by the U.S. Department of Agriculture under the National Organic Program.
In the US, the organic food and agriculture movement began in the 1900s in response to industrial agriculture's heavy reliance on synthetic fertilizers and pesticides, some of which have since been linked to some serious health implications such as hormone disruption and cancer, and unwanted side effects to the environment (1).
This movement steadily evolved into the birth of an organic certification process covering everything from farmed produce and pasture-raised meats, to processed and multi-ingredient foods for anyone interested in acquiring the USDA's organic seal of approval.
It's thought that the organic label ensures the quality of food and reflects ethical farming and ranching practices as well, but it's not your only option when it comes to purchasing foods produced without the use of industrial farming techniques and chemicals.
Understanding what organic really means can help you make educated choices during your next trip to the farmer's market or grocery store.
"Organic" refers to a regulatory label governed by the USDA and the National Organic Program offering guidelines and rules around food production and farming practices.
How Do Organic Farmers and Producers Become Certified?
What goes into becoming "organically certified"? A lot more than just a quick visit to the farm. It can be a rigorous and expensive certification process for organic farmers and ranchers, as the USDA assesses every step of their operation from the soil up.
This process requires many visits and has strict guidelines such as:
- No prohibited substances were applied on the soil three years prior to harvest
- A thoroughly outlined organic system explaining all of the practices and procedures to be performed and maintained
- Detailed records listing all equipment and substances used in production, including date of purchase and where they are stored
Organic production also strictly prohibits the use of GMOs, or genetically modified organisms, including the use of products prepared with GMO ingredients. This refers to methods of influencing plant growth by means that are not natural, things like cell fusion and DNA manipulation are all prohibited.
The organic certification process is no joke, but remember that at the end of the day this refers to styles and practices of farming that meet standards defined by the National Organic Program.
What Products Can Use the Organic Label?
The regulations surrounding organic foods also apply to food labels as well. Organic labels can be found on produce, dairy, meat, and processed foods,
Produce can be called organic as long as it's certified to have come from a farm following the organic guidelines for production. While organic meat regulations require that animals be fed 100% organic food and be raised in living conditions that mimic their natural behaviors such as grazing in a pasture (2).
There are different levels of organic when it comes to labeling processed foods prepared with organic ingredients based on what percentage of the product comes from those ingredients.
Processed, multi-ingredient foods have many considerations. Foods that claim the USDA organic seal must have no artificial preservatives, colors, or flavors, be GMO-free.
Does Organic Food Mean No Pesticides?
Foods labeled with the USDA Certified Organic label do not mean it was never exposed to pesticides. Organic producers can still use fertilizer and substances made from natural ingredients during production and processing, but the choice is ultimately up to the farmer or rancher.
Organic farmers can choose to use products from the USDA's list of approved synthetic and natural substances. These items are allowed for use in organic crop production and include things like plastic crop covers to sodium silicate, a coating used to prevent fruit from going bad or being damaged in transport (commonly used in conventional farming as well).
This isn't meant to scare you, but rather to help you decide if buying organic foods is worth the money, as sometimes organic products in the grocery store can get pricey.
Organic producers tend to use fewer pesticides and herbicides overall. There is a long list of synthetic substances that are not allowed in organic agriculture, like most conventional synthetic fertilizers and pesticides such as glyphosate, commonly used in "Round-Up" products. So consuming more organically produced foods may reduce your risk of exposure to pesticides and herbicide chemicals.
The myth that organic label means there was never any kind of pesticide or chemical used in production or around the crops is just that, a myth!
Is Buying Organic Healthier?
This has been a hot debate for many years as there is a deep belief that organic foods are healthier than conventional (non-organic) foods, but unfortunately, this has been poorly researched.
There are many challenges when trying to study the measurable benefit of consuming organic foods on human health. Many studies use organic interventions that lead to an increase in whole food dietary intake and usually reduce intake of processed foods which may impart some potential health benefits as consuming a diet rich in whole foods has been shown to help with things like weight loss, hypertension, and blood sugar regulation (3,4).
In many of these studies, it is hard to say whether the benefits come directly from eating organic vs a shift in eating more whole foods, either way, there's no denying the benefits associated with decreased consumption of highly processed and fast foods.
Regardless of specific health benefits, some organic foods are thought to be more nutrient-dense than conventionally grown foods. Depending on how it is produced, certain organic foods have higher antioxidant concentrations and increased levels of omega-3 fatty acids when compared to conventionally farmed foods (especially in organic dairy) (3,4).
Organic foods have also been thought to have lower levels of toxic heavy metals, synthetic fertilizers, and pesticide residue, and consumption of organic foods may reduce exposure to antibiotic-resistant bacteria (3,4).
There is not enough statistically significant data to suggest eating organically will impart specific health benefits, especially from long-term studies but that doesn't diminish the potential health benefits of reducing your exposure to herbicides, pesticides, and antibiotics.
Should You Buy Organic?
At the end of the day, it's up to you to decide how you want to plan your diet but we do know that consuming more whole fruits and vegetables provides supportive benefits to our health.
There are many reasons people choose to purchase organic, including:
- reducing your exposure to chemical herbicides and pesticides
- avoiding antibiotics in meat products
- support farming practices that build healthy soil
- have peace of mind about the quality of your food and how it is grown
- support biodiversity and a balanced ecosystem
- animal welfare and health
Certain fruits and vegetables have also been shown to have higher concentrations of residual chemical residue on the outside, for this reason, the Environmental Working Group (EWG) releases its "dirty dozen' and "clean fifteen" list to help consumers identify which fresh produce they may be better off buying organic.
The EWG's dirty dozen list usually contains produce like:
- kale and collard greens
- bell peppers
These are products that they recommend you purchase organic in order to reduce exposure to pesticides and herbicides.
Every year the EWG releases a shoppers guide ranking the pesticide contamination of up to 50 popular fruits and vegetables based on the results of more than 46,000 samples of produce tested by the Department of Agriculture and the Food and Drug Administration.
If you're worried about the quality of your food and where it comes from, one of the best solutions is to visit your local farmers' market. Get to know your local farmers and producers to enjoy fresh, seasonal produce and products that are usually organic or sustainably grown.
Does Buying Organic Benefit The Environment?
If you're weighing out the pros and cons of consuming organic foods, you'll need to take sustainability and our environment into consideration as organic farming may help reduce the reliance on pesticides and practicing farming practices that are thought to benefit the health of the planet and be more humane.
Organic farmers and ranchers follow specific practices to be better for our health, but also the health of our planet, and most importantly the health of our soil; without rich and fertile soil our ability to grow food is threatened, and soil degradation from industrial farming and ranching practices is a real thing.
Overall organic farming may help conserve water, reduce soil degradation and erosion, and increase soil quality and nutrients. But this isn't the only kind of farming out there trying to build a better ecosystem.
Organic farming certification is just one of a few styles of farming and ranching monitored closely by the government, and small, local farms may not be able to afford to become certified organic, but that doesn't mean they aren't using sustainable farming practices.
Other eco-friendly farming practices can include things like permaculture, aquaponics, hydroponics, agroforestry, and more! Visit your local farmer's market and talk with the farmers to find out how they grow your food!
Why Trifecta Uses Organic Ingredients
For us, the choice was easy. We choose organic whenever possible, but we also get to know where our ingredients come from. Meaning, we work with local farmers who produce the highest quality, sustainable products we can find - organic or not!
Organic embodies many of our goals:
- producing all-natural, fresh, healthy food
- treading as lightly on the environment as possible
- ensuring the humane treatment of animals
- improving the standards for better food
Plus, Organic is continually improving to meet higher standards. These standards you set as consumers. When you purchase high-quality foods, you are setting the standard for what food you deem acceptable. And as you raise the bar, others will follow. It’s the reason Organic is the fastest-growing segment in the food industry.
Most importantly, we believe you deserve the best. It's beneficial to your health to eat more fruits and vegetables whether they are organic or not.
The food you eat sets you up for success or failure, not just in your physical performance, but in your mental and spiritual health as well. Ready to clean up your diet? Check out our perfectly portioned and ready-to-eat organic meal plans.