Mention the word “organic” and most people automatically think of two other words: “expensive” and “healthy.” There is some truth to both associations. But does organic really mean “healthier”?
Let’s start with a clear understanding of the definition of organic. Foods labeled as organic are grown and produced according to U.S. Department of Agriculture regulations. Organic farming practices are environmentally friendly practices. Organic operations must demonstrate they are conserving natural resources and biodiversity, and use only approved substances. The certification process is expensive, as farmers need to prove over time they are following organic practices. This requires repeated testing of soil and site visits for certification. Hence, some of the costs of organically produced foods are passed on to the consumer, which is why organic foods tend to be more expensive than conventional foods.
Now let’s address the notion of organic being healthier. From an environmental perspective, organically produced foods are better for the environment. From a human health perspective, there is evidence that consuming organic foods reduces exposure to pesticide residues. However, there is not convincing evidence that organic foods are nutritionally superior to conventionally grown foods. In other words, when it comes to produce, if you can’t afford organic, you’re still better off eating conventional produce than no produce at all.
So how to I decide if I should buy organic?
As a general rule of thumb, if you can afford to purchase some organic foods, select organic when choosing produce that has an outer skin or rind you would eat. For example, apples, berries, cucumbers, tomatoes, and most leafy greens are good organic purchases. On the other hand, avocados, bananas, kiwi, mango, and watermelon all have an outer rind or skin that is discarded, meaning you will have lower pesticide exposure even if you select conventional. Check out the Environmental Working Group's "dirty dozen" and "clean 15" guide for more information on the best organic produce bets.
What about meat, dairy, and eggs?
Animal food products also must follow strict organic certification guidelines. For animal foods to be considered organic, animals must be allowed to live in their natural living conditions. This means cattle can graze and are only fed grass. Chickens are free range and raised cage free.
Antibiotics are not allowed to be used in organic meat, dairy or egg products. It’s important to note that withholding antibiotics from animals who need them medically is considered cruel. Animals requiring antibiotics for medical necessity are required to have access to them; however, those animals are no longer considered to be organic and are not allowed to be labeled as such. It also is important to note that since 2017, strict government regulations prohibit the use of antibiotics in any animal food for the sole reason of growth promotion. This essentially means that antibiotics are only allowed for medical necessity and treatment of animals. These regulations are in recognition and response to the growing public health crisis related to antibiotic resistance.
Two final words on organics. First, organic potato chips are still chips, not health food.
Finally, because of the expense, small local farming operations may use organic practices without being recognized as producing organic foods. You can always feel good about buying locally produced foods that are in season. Purchasing locally grown foods is an environmentally friendly practice as it cuts down on the number of miles a food must travel before it reaches your kitchen. Furthermore, supporting local farmers means you’re supporting your local community and economy. Shop your farmers market when you can, or look into becoming a member of a co-op or community supported agriculture (CSA) program in your area.