Should you be eating organic?

by | Sep 14, 2015 | Last updated Feb 15, 2022

Consumer demand for organic products has grown by double digits every year since the 1990s and a recent survey by Consumer Reports found that 84% of American consumers purchase organic foods. Far from being products reserved for health food stores, organic products can be found almost anywhere and while literature on the subject is somewhat mixed, the pendulum seems to swing in favor of an organic diet.

But there are still a few glaring issues with organic foods. One major problem for consumers is organic products can cost anywhere from one-and-a-half to three times as much as their conventionally produced counterparts. These prices can quickly add up when buying items like fruits and vegetables that are consumed on a regular basis.

Even as we shell out big bucks for organic food, few of us actually know what we’re buying. A survey conducted by the brand consultancy BFG found that nearly 70 percent of people were buying organic food, but only 20 percent of those consumers were able to define what “organic” actually meant.

So what does “organic” mean and is it worth the extra dollars? Read on to find out.

Organic, defined
The word ‘organic’ refers to the way farmers grow and process agricultural products. While many consumers are interested in organic foods for the health benefits, another major upside of organic farming is its environmental benefits, including reduced pollution, and soil and water conservation. Farmers who grow organic products do not prescribe to conventional methods of farming and instead use natural fertilizers, crop rotation, and mulch to treat crops.

The USDA has a strict organic certification program that requires all organic foods meet a set of government standards that regulate how foods are grown, handled, and processed. In order for a product to be sold as “100 percent organic,” “organic,” or “made with organic ingredients,” the product must be produced and handled without the use of, “synthetic substances and ingredients, prohibited nonsynthetic substances, nonagricultural substances used in or on processed products, ionizing radiation, [and] sewage sludge.” They also cannot contain genetically modified organisms (GMOs) and farmers must show they are protecting their products from prohibited substances.

In laymen’s terms, this means that organic products are produced using the most natural means possible. They are free of most synthetic additives like pesticides, chemical fertilizers, and dyes, as well as GMOs, industrial solvents, and irradiation. (There are certain synthetic substances that are approved by the USDA in organic farming. See a full list here.) If this seems somewhat confusing, labeling is even more so.

Any product with an “organic” label in the US must be USDA-certified. But unfortunately, “organic” is not the only term on the market. Attempting to cash in on consumers’ desire for healthier products, marketers have come up with terms that may imply health but are not regulated by the USDA. Here are the buzzwords you should know before your next shopping trip:

100% Organic
Exactly what it sounds like. This food is certified 100% organic by the USDA.

Unfortunately, 100% organic and organic do not mean the same thing. To use this term, foods must be 95% organic, meaning 95% of the ingredients are organic and they have not been treated with synthetic additives.

Made with organic ingredients
Foods carrying this label have at least 70% organic ingredients but they cannot use the USDA’s organic seal.

Unfortunately, there is no federal regulation for the word ‘natural‘ on food products so be wary of this food label. While many consumers assume this is synonymous with organic, almost anyone can label their product as natural.

Should you be eating organic?
Now down to the real question — should you spend the extra money for organic foods?

While there have been claims that organic vegetables offer more nutrients than conventional produce, this is unlikely. Many of these claims were debunked by an analysis published by researchers at Stanford University in 2012 that reviewed more than 200 studies of organic and conventional food and found that the nutrient content of organic foods does not exceed those of non-organics.

But, when it comes to pesticides, there is little debate that organic foods contain less of the chemical and synthetic substances. Are pesticides bad for us? Some, like Melinda Moyer, in her article, “Organic Shmorganic,” would argue no. According to Moyer, when it comes to conventionally produced food, there is not enough evidence to prove pesticides are bad for us, not to mention, the pesticides found on fruits and vegetables are well under the FDA’s federal limits.

But others, like Harvard professor Alex Lu, argue that it’s only common sense to try to avoid pesticide exposure. According to Professor Lu, federal safety guidelines don’t take into account repeated exposure to low levels of chemicals, and many pesticides that the federal government has previously deemed safe have been banned after years of use when they were discovered to be harmful.

With so much conflicting evidence, how are you to choose? Certainly what’s most important is eating more fruits and vegetables; we would argue that getting lots of good-for-you vitamins and minerals while reducing calorie intake has more impact on your health than simply avoiding pesticides. Sure, if we could afford all organic, all the time, why not? But unfortunately, for most of us, this isn’t an option. If you can’t buy organic, don’t sweat it. If you do want to buy organic, here are some tips to help reduce cost:

  1. Buy produce in season to reduce price
  2. Peel and wash conventional vegetables to reduce pesticides
  3. Try to buy the produce you eat the most often organic (for example, if you’re following Popeye the Sailor’s lead and eating spinach every night, buy an organic variety)
  4. Check out the Environmental Working Group’s Dirty Dozen list, including the fruits and vegetables that, when tested, had the largest quantity and largest amounts of pesticides on them. Check out the full list here.

There isn’t much of a difference between the nutritional content of organic meats and conventional meats, but conventional livestock is raised with antibiotics, including antibiotics used to treat humans. Why is this an issue? When animals are treated with a certain antibiotic, the bacteria living in those animals can become resistant to it. If a human ingests the antibiotic-resistant bacteria through improperly cooked meat, he or she will be very hard to treat as they may not respond to the routine antibiotic treatment. While the use of antibiotics in animals has been banned in the EU and Canada, it is still legal in the U.S., with the meat industry arguing that there is not enough conclusive evidence to directly link the use of drugs in food animals to an increase in drug-resistant bacteria.

Another issue in conventionally raised livestock, particularly in cows, is hormones that are used to make animals grow larger faster. Most scientists agree that drugs given to animals will be present on your dinner plate, but whether or not this has an effect on humans is up for debate. Once again, the EU has concluded that hormones in meat may be linked to certain cancers as well as early puberty and have banned their use in European cattle, while the use of hormones remains legal in the US.

While the antibiotic and hormone debates continue, there is no dispute that organic livestock is treated more humanely, and the way they are raised is better for the environment. Antibiotic runoff from conventionally treated livestock can make its way into waterways and can be poisonous to wildlife. As Greatist writes, “If animal welfare and the environment are a priority, organic poultry may be worth the splurge.”

Organic milk has slightly higher levels of omega-3 fatty acids compared with conventional milk, but not enough to make the milk worth the buy. But, just as the argument goes with conventional vs. organic beef, conventional cows, as opposed to organic dairy cows, are treated with antibiotics, hormones, and may come into contact with pesticides through their feed. What may sway you to take out your pocketbook is one particular hormone, BGH (bovine growth hormone) or BGH’s synthetic sister, rBGH (recombinant bovine growth hormone).

While BGH and rBGH won’t find their way into your morning cereal, the cancer-causing hormone IGF-1 just might. IGF-1, which is found in elevated levels in cows treated with BGH, can increase the risk of breast cancer up to seven times, as well as increase the risk of other types of cancer. Organic milk may be one product worth spending some extra bills on.

While there are clear benefits to switching to organic milk, eating organic eggs isn’t as important when it comes to health. As a rule, chickens are not normally given growth hormones and are not routinely given antibiotics (unlike cows). There is no evidence that organic eggs pose less of a health risk than conventional eggs, but once again, if the humane treatment of animals is important to you, chickens raised under organic restrictions are privy to much better living conditions than those that are not.

Trying to eat healthy, especially in a world of conflicting views, can be difficult and stressful. But no way of eating will ever be perfect, and much of how you eat will come down to personal preference. Trying to follow any plan too rigidly, whether it be paleo, organic, or vegan, can lead to stress and disappointment. While we recommend trying to eat organic fruits, veggies, and meats when possible, what’s most important is eating balanced meals. Make the majority of your plate fruits and veggies, whether organic or not, and make sure to eat plenty of whole grains with meats in moderation.