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What Is Organic Food – Definition, Benefits & Cost Analysis

The organic food market has experienced unprecedented growth over the last several years, and today the U.S. market tops $39 billion per year, according to the Organic Trade Association (OTA). The OTA has also reported double-digit growth for the organic food market every year since the 1990s, and a 2014 Consumer Reports study found that 84% of shoppers report having deliberately purchased an organic grocery product.

Even so, there are still a few elements holding the organic food market back from complete dominance: the additional costs associated with buying organic, confusion over what organic really means, and what, if any, health advantages are associated with organic food.

What Is Organic?

Organically grown produce cannot be grown with the use of chemically based fertilizers or synthetic pesticides. It does not necessarily mean that no pesticides were used, but any pesticides would have to be regulated and non-synthetic. It is also not allowed to be genetically modified, and has not been irradiated.

In order to be considered organic, animal products need to come from animals that were fed with an organic diet and were raised under certain conditions that promote animal health and welfare. Organically raised animals cannot be fed antibiotics or other growth hormones.

Technically, the food you grow in your own home vegetable garden could be considered organic if you don’t use synthetic pesticides and you stick with natural fertilizers. However, you couldn’t claim your garden food as officially organic unless you earn approval from the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

In order to use the “organic” label on foods sold in the U.S., food growers and producers must adhere to regulations set forth in the Organic Foods Production Act of 1990, among other restrictions. It can be cumbersome and expensive to apply for and receive organic certification, which is why many growers don’t bother doing so, even if their food is organically grown.

Organic Foods and Health

While the organic label on food means that it was grown according to regulations, there is still rampant debate about the health implications of organic growing. A 2014 study in the British Journal of Nutrition presents a compelling case for organic food, and is often cited in debates on the issue. The study is based on a meta-analysis of 343 peer-reviewed studies on organic foods, and found that organic foods may be more nutritious and safer than non-organic foods.

  • Antioxidants in Organic Food. The study found that concentrations of a range of antioxidants (such as polyphenols) were substantially higher in organic crops. Antioxidants play a role in the reduction of risk for a variety of chronic diseases, including certain cancers.
  • Effects of Cadmium. The study also found that conventionally grown crops had four times the level of pesticide residues compared with organic crops, and also had significantly higher concentrations of cadmium. According to the Agency for Toxic Substances & Disease Registry at the U.S. Centers for Disease Control, long-term oral exposure to low levels of cadmium can result in kidney damage and bone fragility in humans, and has been linked to anemia, liver disease, nerve damage, and brain damage in animals.
  • Pesticides and Pregnant Women. A study published in Environmental Health Perspectives from the U.S. National Institutes of Health found that pregnant women who lived near farms that applied pesticides were more likely to give birth to children with autism and other neurodevelopmental disorders and delays.
  • Pesticides and Infants and Young Children. The National Pesticide Information Center at Oregon State University states, “Infants and children are more sensitive to the toxic effects of pesticides than adults.”

On the other hand, a 2014 study hailing from the Cancer Epidemiology Unit at prestigious Oxford University asked 600,000 women ages 50 and older about their diets and found no association between eating foods free from pesticides (including organic foods) and overall risk of developing cancer.

farmer with a basket of veggies

Cost Concerns

Historically, organic food has cost significantly more than conventionally grown food. However, a 2015 Consumer Reports analysis concluded that consumers shouldn’t operate under the assumption that organic food always costs more – out of 100 different foods found at four separate suppliers, organic options were on average 47% more expensive than their conventionally grown counterparts. The range was varied – for some items, consumers would pay three times as much for the organic option, while with other foods the organic option was the same price or cheaper than the conventional version.

When to Buy Organic

In spite of the results of the Oxford University study, there’s a “can’t hurt, might help” philosophy among many health experts when it comes to eating organic. Nutritionist Conner Middelmann Whitney concludes in Psychology Today that “if you want to lower your cancer risk, you’re better off choosing organics. No matter what the latest study says.”

Given the potential health benefits of consuming organic foods, it might be tempting to switch to an all-organic diet, but that’s often not realistic for those on a tight personal budget. Thankfully, there are a number of strategies to save money when buying organic.

For example, you could only buy organic for fresh fruits, such as strawberries or blueberries, or for items your child consumes regularly. Many organic advocates may tell you that there’s no “gray area” when it comes to organic foods, but prioritizing a few organic purchases is a great place to start if you’re trying to stick to a budget.

Approved vs. Safe

In 2014, the Alliance for Food and Farming published a report based on an analysis of nearly 12,000 food and water samples conducted by the Pesticide Data Program. The report concluded that more than 99% of the samples analyzed demonstrated pesticide levels that were lower than the threshold level set by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). The study was used to underscore the message that “both conventional and organic fruits and vegetables are safe, and consumers can eat more of both with confidence.”

The Environmental Working Group (EWG) counters that message with the following: “It’s true that nearly all samples meet legal limits, but legal isn’t always safe.” The EWG believes that the EPA’s rules are too lax, and that, “If [EPA] tolerance levels were set to protect all [people] eating produce, as we believe they should be, more fruits and vegetables would fail [the test].” Ultimately, it’s up to every individual and family to decide where their own tolerance and comfort levels lie.

Choosing Organic Produce Items

The Dirty Dozen is an annual list published by the EWG. It highlights 12 fruits and vegetables that received the worst scores on laboratory tests conducted by the USDA Pesticide Testing Program and the U.S. Food and Drug Administration. Deborah Gerszberg, RD, CNSC, CDN, clinical nutritionist at the Columbia University Medical Center’s Pancreas Center, personally adheres to the guidelines set forth in the Dirty Dozen list and recommends that others do so too. The list changes every year due to weather and other elements that might threaten crops in various locations and thus influence the frequency and intensity of pesticide applications.

The EWG ranks the fruits and vegetables in order, starting with the worst of the worst. This ranking is based on several elements from the USDA and FDA analyses, including percent of samples that had detectable pesticides, average number of pesticides found in a sample, and average amount (in parts per million) of all pesticides found.

As of 2015, the Dirty Dozen features the following produce items (in order) that the EWG says should definitely be purchased organic:

  1. Apples
  2. Peaches
  3. Nectarines
  4. Strawberries
  5. Grapes
  6. Celery
  7. Spinach
  8. Sweet bell peppers
  9. Cucumbers
  10. Cherry tomatoes
  11. Snap peas (imported)
  12. Potatoes

The EWG also adds two bonus categories that scored poorly on the analyses. This year it was hot peppers and leafy greens, including kale and collard greens.

Two common themes jump out on this list:

  • Grown Above Ground. With the exception of potatoes, every fruit and vegetable on this list is grown above ground. Above-ground plants are more susceptible to direct application of sprayed pesticides.
  • Non-peeled. Every item on this list can be eaten without peeling. While consumers often peel potatoes and remove peas from snap pea pods, both “casings” are edible. That means that there is no protective barrier between the edible portion of the food and topically applied pesticides.

organic apples

Choosing Organic Animal Products

When it comes to animal products, the terminology can be overwhelming. Beyond organic, labels include cage-free, farm-raised, grass-fed, grass-finished, no antibiotics, no hormones, humanely raised, free range, no nitrites, and more. It’s no wonder consumers are confused.

As the most regulated term in the bunch, “organic” is a good starting place when you’re eyeing labels in the meat and dairy section. There is no Dirty Dozen list for animal products, but there is still plenty of research to help inform buying decisions.

Here is a snapshot of what “organic” means with various animal products:

  • Livestock. Organic livestock isn’t raised with hormones or antibiotics, and it is also raised with regulated animal welfare standards that typically include access to pasture feeding. According to the Mayo Clinic, cattle that are allowed to feed in a pasture (grass-fed) may provide meat that is leaner, contains more heart-healthy omega-3 fatty acids, has higher concentrations of antioxidants and vitamins, and provides more conjugated linoleic acid, which is thought to cut down on the risk of heart disease and certain cancers.
  • Milk. Since organic milk can’t be produced from dairy cows raised with hormones, the resulting milk is lower in certain hormone levels, including IGF-1. Elevated levels of IGF-1 can spell bad news for people, especially those already at risk for certain cancers. A study in the Journal of the National Cancer Institute found that “any increase in IGF-1 levels attributable to milk consumption could…potentially counteract a protective effect of dietary calcium from milk on colorectal cancer.” Like meat from organically raised cattle, milk from organically raised dairy cows also has higher levels of healthy omega-3 fatty acids.
  • Poultry. There is some evidence that organic chicken has lower levels of antibiotic-resistant bacteria than conventionally grown chicken, but for many people, this information is trumped by the increasingly public images of non-organic chickens being raised in inhumane conditions. Organically raised chickens must have access to the outdoors.

Foods You Don’t Need to Buy Organic

If you prefer to buy organic, when can you feel most comfortable opting for conventional? In addition to the Dirty Dozen, the EWG also releases a second annual list called the Clean Fifteen. The Clean Fifteen represents the items that scored best based on the analysis of the USDA’s Pesticide Testing Program and the U.S. Food and Drug Administration.

As of 2015, according to the EWG, if you’re going to go conventional, these are the foods to choose:

  1. Avocados
  2. Sweet corn
  3. Pineapples
  4. Cabbage
  5. Sweet peas (frozen)
  6. Onions
  7. Asparagus
  8. Mangoes
  9. Papayas
  10. Kiwis
  11. Eggplant
  12. Grapefruit
  13. Cantaloupe
  14. Cauliflower
  15. Sweet potatoes

Of the 15 items on this list, 11 are typically peeled in some way during food preparation. In comparing this list to the Dirty Dozen, it’s clear that the presence of an outer peel may influence how susceptible a food is to pesticides.

Non-Produce Food Items

The EWG also says that you can get away with consuming non-organic spices. Even if pesticides were used during the growing of the spices, you’re getting such a comparably small amount of those pesticides in each bite, it’s probably not worth the added cost of organics.

With eggs, nutrition can be manipulated based on how farmers feed the chickens, and, thus, higher levels of omega-3 fatty acids can be introduced. However, from a health and nutrition perspective, unless the eggs have been specifically manipulated to have additional nutrients, there are “no significant differences affecting health between organic and conventional eggs,” according to The Washington Post. The decision to choose organic eggs may have more to do with animal welfare than with concentrations of harmful substances.

organic rooster

Final Word

Organic food can be expensive, but rather than taking an “all or nothing” approach, it may be best to prioritize and purchase organic foods that give you the most bang for your buck. Ultimately, eating more fruits and vegetables is one of the most important things you can do for your health, so don’t shy away from the produce aisle just because you’re intimidated by prices or the organic vs. conventional debate. Try to aim for foods that are in season. They’re cheaper and carry a much lower carbon footprint than food grown halfway around the world.

Do you try to purchase and consume organic produce?

Ellen Gans
Ellen Hunter Gans is a full-time writer who loves highbrow books, lowbrow TV, late afternoon sunshine, Oxford commas, adding to her "countries visited" list, and the three Cs: cabernet, coffee, and carbohydrates. She's also a fifteen-time marathon finisher and Ironman triathlete. Ellen lives with her awesome husband and adorable son.

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