Organic foods are often associated with fewer synthetic fertilizers and pesticides, but the USDA has created plenty of other requirements to make the grade as a certified organic food. In the case of livestock, animal health and welfare play a role. The livestock must also be raised without hormones or antibiotics and fed an organic diet. Organic crops can’t be grown with synthetic fertilizers, certain prohibited pesticides, sewage sludge, or genetically modified organisms (GMO). And multi-ingredient foods (think packaged foods in the center of the grocery store) must include 95 percent organic ingredients to earn the organic label. But all that organic TLC costs extra. For farmers, organic foods are more expensive to grow, meaning higher prices may be unavoidable. To avoid the premium price tag (and getting ripped off!), there are a few other key words to look for:
Natural: This product label is not synonymous with organic. “Natural” means that the product doesn’t contain any artificial ingredients or colors. These products are also minimally processed, but the label must include a more detailed explanation of what exactly makes it natural.
Free-Range: “Free-range” or “free-roaming” means that the animals have access to the outdoors, though there is no standard for how much access they have. Consider springing for organic rather than free-range if animal welfare is a primary concern.
Cage-Free: Some egg producers house hens in cage-free environments. These systems are generally considered to offer better conditions for the animals, though they’re still far from cruelty-free. There’s no evidence the nutritional quality of the eggs differs based on caged and cage-free systems.
Antibiotic-free: Antibiotic-resistant bacteria can result from the overuse of antibiotics, and those bacteria can be passed from animals to humans through the food chain. Farms that use fewer antibiotics have been shown to have fewer resistant bugs, which may make their products safer when they reach the table (though studies are still preliminary).
Hormone-free: The presence of hormones is one of the most significant differences between conventional and organic milk products, even if there still isn’t absolute evidence that hormones are dangerous. For buyers that choose to avoid hormones, hormone-free (rather than all-out organic) dairy products offer the same benefits at a potentially lower price.
Transitional: Going organic ain’t cheap or quick (for the farmer!), and the easiest way to help a farm make the switch is buying transitional food. “Transitional” means that the product has been cultivated according to organic standards, but the soil and farm conditions haven’t yet completely met organic standards or the farm’s organic status is pending.
Fruits and Vegetables: Compared to conventional produce, organic fruits and veggies are grown with far fewer pesticides, which have been associated with developmental neurological issues among children. Research has also suggested organic food may be more nutritious— with fewer nitrates and more vitamin C, for example— though these studies are far from conclusive. Peeling fruits and vegetables or removing outer layers of leafy greens is also a great way to cut back on pesticide intake. That said, certain fruits and veggies might be more important to buy organic than others. Enter, the Environmental Working Group’s (EWG) Clean 15 and Dirty Dozen. The Dirty Dozen generally have the most pesticide residues when grown conventionally because they’re more prone to pesky bugs. Purchase these fruits and veggies organic whenever possible to avoid the potentially harmful effects of pesticides:
Apples Celery Strawberries
Peaches Spinach Nectarines
Bell Peppers Potatoes Blueberries
Kale Collard Greens Lettuce
For more Info: Organic food: nutritious food or food for thought? A review of the evidence. Magkos, F., Arvaniti, F., Zampelas, A. Department of Nutrition and Dietetics, Harokopio University, Athens, Greece. International Journal of Food Sciences and Nutrition, 2003 Sep;54(5):357-71 [↩]
Nutritional quality of organic food: shades of grey or shades of green? Williams, C.M. High Sinclair Unit of Human Nutrition, School of Human Nutrition, School of Food Biosciences, University of Reading, UK. The Proceedings of the Nutrition Society, 2002 Feb;61(1):19-24. [↩]
Fruit and soil quality of organic and conventional strawberry agroecosystems. Reganold, J.P., Andrews, P.K., Reeve, J.R, et al. Department of Crop and Soil Sciences, Washington State University, Pullman, Washington. PLoS One. 2010 Sep 1;5(9). [↩]