Organic food is always superior to conventional food. Scientific studies show that organic fruits and vegetables generally contain less toxic pesticide and herbicides than conventional produce, and organic meat and animal products allow you to avoid the effects of eating foods that have been treated with antibiotics and growth hormones. Whether organic foods actually contain higher nutrient content is unknown except from anecdotal experience, but there is evidence that organically-grown foods contain more antioxidants and micronutrients such as folic acid and vitamin C, making organic foods the ideal choice.
The topic of organic foods provides much room for argument and encompasses a variety of issues. First, there’s the issue of definitions, which I’ll cover briefly, but if you want more information on definitions you can refer to the Oregon Tilth website
Second, there’s the question of if organic food is actually “healthier.” I will discuss strategies for avoiding toxic pesticides and the fact that organic animal products have been shown to be richer in healthy fats and have a more favorable omega-3 to omega-6 ratio.
Third, there’s the question of whether products that are being sold as organic really are organic. In light of news and popular culture reports of mismanagement by organic certifying agents, producers, and the U.S. National Organic Program that oversees organics in the U.S., the integrity of the organic label has been called into question.
And understanding the differences between the different organic certifiers—there are 52 domestic third party agents including the well known Oregon Tilth and California Certified Organic Farmers, and the lesser known A Bee Organic to name three—gets tricky, especially when you find out that legally there’s no difference between them! It’s the story behind the third party certification that matters.
Here I offer an in depth look at what we know about organics, and a list from the Environmental Working Group of essential foods to buy organic due to conventional pesticide levels . We’ll look at why organic foods are highly preferable as well as what’s wrong with the U.S. organic certification system.
What’s Right About Organic Foods?
A primary factor in growing nutritious and flavorful food is the quality of the soil. Organic growing practices attempt to mimic natural ecosystems in order to maintain and replenish the fertility and nutrients of the soil. Organic production promotes sustainability by growing food without the use of toxic and persistent pesticides and fertilizers. Organic animal products are produced without the use of antibiotics, synthetic hormones, genetic engineering or cloning.
What Does it Mean to Be Certified Organic?
You may be surprised to learn that the U.S. Department of Agriculture provides the one and only set of standards to certify organic products in the U.S. The government implemented the standards in 2001 with a National Organic Program (NOP) to oversee the whole thing. In order to receive an organic certification, a farmer or company has to get certified by a third party agent that is authorized by the NOP to oversee the process and ensure that the food really is being produced organically. As mentioned previously, the third party certifiers include both private organizations like Oregon Tilth and California Certified Organic Farmers (two of the oldest certifiers), and state certifying agents, which are generally the overseen by the department of agriculture, such as the Rhode Island Division of Agriculture Organic Certification Program.
There are 93 foreign and domestic certifying agents total and a producer can choose any of the third party certifiers that serve their state to oversee their organic certification. The NOP created the third party organic certification because it allows an independent (non-governmental) organization to oversee that a company is not just claiming to be organic and really is growing organically.
In theory this is a great thing because it should ensure integrity in organic standards and production because it can remove the government from being the most important element in the organic equation. If you know that an organic food is certified by an agent that is trustworthy then you know that the USDA Organic label actually means what it is supposed to mean. The problem comes when you have 93 third party certifiers that may or may not be doing their jobs—there is evidence of rampant mismanagement by the NOP, which has allowed a lack of enforcement of guidelines.
What is Negative About the National Organic Program?
In 2010, organic foods and the NOP took some hits in the form of a report from the USDA Office of the Inspector General that documented extensive mismanagement and lack of oversight within the NOP. There were a number of violations by organic producers in relation to the labeling of nonorganically produced foods as organic and in upholding the National Organic Rule of 2001. Details of the audit will be summarized below.
A second concern with the NOP is that it took away autonomy of third party certifiers to create more stringent standards. There has been criticism that it detracts from the integrity of the USDA Organic label because of its all encompassing nature and the mismanagement issues documented in the audit. Additionally, a major aim of the NOP appears to be to provide a marketing program for organics, essentially turning the organic label into a moneymaking tool and potentially corrupting the integrity of organic production.
Can You Tell Me About the Economic Cost of Organics?
Naturally, organic foods cost more than conventional counterparts. A 2010 article in Time magazine reported that organic fruits and vegetables cost 13 to 36 cents more per pound on average than conventional produce, although these numbers vary widely based on type of food and where it comes from. Organic animal products tend to be even more expensive: According to the USDA’s Economic Research Report, as of 2008 a half-gallon of organic milk averaged $4.40 compared with $2.43 for a half-gallon of conventional. Current prices are significantly higher—a 2009 report of egg prices shows that organic is generally double the cost of conventional.
The higher price tag in lean economic times makes us want a guarantee that when we pay for “organic” the food actually be produced that way. Most people want to eat healthier and help prevent the use of toxic pesticides and inhumane animal care practices, but it is infuriating and frustrating when good intentions are counteracted by faulty production practices and a lack of oversight from the certifying agents.
What’s Good About Organics?
There is significant evidence that organic products have significantly less toxic pesticides and chemical residue than conventional. Many of the pesticides and chemicals used on conventional agriculture have been shown to be harmful to humans because they need to be toxic to kill pests. The Environmental Protection Agency has a toleration limit for the amount of pesticides left on foods that are sold, meaning that some toxic chemicals are legally allowed. When you eat a lot of food with pesticides, levels can build up and are stored in your fat tissue. Then there’s the problem of toxic residues above the tolerance limit—a 1997 FDA report found that less than one percent of imported bananas sampled had violative residues while 6.5 percent of the strawberries did.
Ideally, organic produce allows you to avoid consuming these toxic chemicals or at least significantly lessens the chance even if there are violations or mismanagement in organic production. Organic animal products are equally important for your health: They don’t contain the chemicals and hormones that their conventional counterparts contain from the dosing of antibiotics and growth-boosting hormones. For example, it has been speculated by researchers that American girls are entering puberty at significantly younger ages, and adult men are developing breasts as well, likely due to the hormones in the environment.
Additionally, there is evidence that grass-fed beef is lower in fat, and it has a higher ratio of omega-3s to omega-6 fatty acids—a balance that is crucial for health, improved cardiovascular function, and cancer prevention. Also free range animals have less chance of spreading E. coli bacteria than factory farmed animals and they have been shown to have higher concentration of conjugated linoleic fatty acids, which help prevent cancer.
If My Budget Won’t Allow Me to Be 100% Organic, What Can I Do?
A reasonable question! Nowadays organic foods are widely available but there are some foods that are hard to find organic, and we already know they are pricey. Fruits and vegetables are a critical part of a healthy diet and optimal body composition. To reduce your risk of exposure to pesticides, the Environmental Working Group has published a guide to pesticides and produce. You can substantially lower your exposure to pesticides by avoiding the “Dirty Dozen” twelve conventional fruits and vegetables and opting for organic. The “Clean Fifteen” is a list of conventional produce with the lowest pesticide levels, and if you need to, you can opt for conventional with these foods. Take note that organic foods are not genetically modified, while conventional may be, and contain no label either way.
Dirty Dozen in order from most pesticides to less pesticides:
Apples, Celery, Strawberries, Peaches, Spinach, Imported Nectarines, Imported Grapes, Sweet Bell Peppers, Potatoes, Domestic Blueberries, Lettuce, Kale and Collards.
Clean Fifteen in order from cleanest to less clean:
Onions, Sweet Corn, Pineapples, Avocado, Asparagus, Sweet Peas, Mangoes, Eggplant, Domestic Cantaloupe, Kiwi, Cabbage, Watermelon, Sweet Potatoes, Grapefruit, Mushrooms
What About Meat and Other Animal Products?
Organic meat is produced without antibiotics, hormones, or synthetic pesticides and the animals have to be fed grass or grain that is 100 percent organic. The animal feed can’t contain GMOs or animal by-products and the animals have to have access to the outdoors, including fresh air, water, sunshine, grass and pasture.
Take note that nonorganic meat won’t be labeled as nonorganic just as produce isn’t labeled as nonorganic, but it’s possible to get confused because meat labeled “natural” is not organic. Rather the meat once the animal is killed is processed without artificial ingredients but the animals could be fed or raised “nonorganically.”
Of course, there’s the humane and moral side to organic meat, which we won’t get into here, and I already addressed health reasons for opting for organic meat above. One thing to note is the importance of grain- versus grass-fed—go for grass-fed when you have the choice because it is going to be leaner and has been found to have more cancer preventing conjugated linoleic acids.
As a member of the Poliquin readership you will be highly interested in ensuring that the food you eat is as nutritious and clean as possible. One strategy to avoid some of the pitfalls of the organic certification that I detail below is to buy your meat from small local farms. Another option is to join a food co-op or Community Sustainable Agriculture producer because these foods are more likely to be produced by farmers who are interested in maintaining the integrity of organic foods than some of the larger commercial organic producers that may also have conventional operations. Go to Local Harvest
for a database of local and possibly organic farms and stores.
What Did the USDA Audit Find?
The USDA audit was published in early 2010 by the USDA Office of the Inspector General. The NOP overseen by the USDA and created in October 2002, has the responsibility to enforce the organic standards laid out in the National Organic Final Ruling of 2001. The NOP requires that organic producers be certified by either a state or third party private agent, such as the Oregon Tilth or California Certified Organic Farmers. Once a producer receives certification they can put the USDA Organic label on their product and may include the label from the third party certifier such as Oregon Tilth.
The report found at least five cases in which the third party certifier had identified violations committed by organic producers, which were not monitored after being informed of violation. In one case the violation wasn’t corrected and in none of the five cases was there follow up to ensure correction of violations. For example, a company was cited by their third party certifier as selling nonorganic mint as organic. The company continued to do this for two years and were never required to correct it by the third party certifier (whose job it is to do so).
Other producers were also found to improperly market their products as certified organic when they were no longer being produced organically. One producer filed an agreement that it would no longer apply for or be a certified organic producer with the NOP, but continued to call itself “organic” without the NOP following up or taking action. Further, out of 41 complaints of violation of the organic standards to the NOP, 19 went unresolved for an average of about three years. When this problem was identified, 13 of 19 complaints were resolved in the subsequent six-month period. In general there was an all-around lack of oversight and enforcement of the NOP guidelines.
Reasons for the NOPs lack of effectiveness include lack of written procedures for ensuring compliance with organic standards, nor did they have timeframes for reprimanding or enforcing reprimands. There was significant evidence of mismanagement among organic certifiers and producers including major problems with the California State Organic Program where the majority of domestic organic food is grown.
You Mentioned Nutrition and Organics. What Does Research Say?
Two studies from the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition present data that organic and conventional foods are very similar in nutrient content. A 2009 review found that in 10 out of 13 nutrient categories, there were no significant differences. The differences that were detected were most likely due to variations in fertilizer use (more phosphorus in organic foods and more nitrogen in conventional) and ripeness at harvest (more titratable acidity in organic). Researchers conclude that it is unlikely “that consumption of these nutrients at the concentrations reported in organic foods provide any health benefit “ or are of “public health relevance.”
The second review, from 2010, found that in the majority of studies there were no significant differences found between the nutrient-related health effects of organic and conventional foods. Seven studies found no differences in preventative effects of organic versus conventional foods. One study from 2003 found that urinary excretions of quercetin and kaempferol, both antioxidants, were significantly higher after exposure to organic diets and that total antioxidant capacity was significantly lower in the organic diet population compared to a group that ate a conventional diet. The good news is the organic food production method resulted in greater antioxidant content in the foods included in the diet. The bad news is that in the study those extra antioxidants were expelled in the urine and total antioxidant capacity was lower.
Is There Good News for Organics and Nutrition?
Yes! Another study found that strict organic diets in infants resulted in significantly lower risk of eczema whereas moderately organic diets did not effect eczema risk. A third study had more promising results with organic strawberry extracts inhibiting cancer-cell growth significantly more than a similar conventional strawberry extract.
So, Should I Really Make an Effort to Eat Organic?
YES! I implore you not to allow this evidence to discourage you from trying to eat organic as much as possible. Even though organic foods may not provide significantly more nutrients or have documented health benefits, researchers do point to the fact that there are not enough studies to make informed conclusions either way. If you care about your body and need more convincing to opt for organic whenever you can, I guarantee you that the hormones and antibiotics in nonorganic meat will mess with your hormones and the pesticides from nonorganic produce may build up in your fat tissue making you more toxic and possibly effecting your neurological system.
Dangour, A., Dodhia, S., Hayter, A., Allen, E., Lock, K., Uauy, R. Nutritional Quality of Organic Foods: A Systematic Review. The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition. 2009. 90, 680-685.
Dangour, A., Dodhia, S., Hayter, A., Allen, E., Lock, K., Uauy, R. Nutrition-Related Health Effects of Organic Foods: A Systematic Review. The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition.2010. 92, 203-210.
Grinder-Pedersen, L., Rasmussen, S., Bugel, S., Jorgensen, L., Dragsted, L., Gundersen, V. Effect of Diets Based on Foods From Conventional Versus Organic Production on Intake and Exertion of Flavonoids and Markers of Antioxidative Defense in Humans. Journal of Agriculture and Food Chemistry. 2003. 51(19), 5671-5676.
Kluger, Jeffrey. What’s So Great About Organic Food? Time. 18 August 2010.