A Guide to Organic Foods: Are They Really Better?

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You’ve heard about “organic foods” before and you know they’re meant to be better for you, but have you ever really thought about why they’re better?  

It’s not just because Jessica Alba says so!  

There are so many reasons organic foods are better for your health, your community and the environment.  Let’s start with the basics.

What are Organic Foods?

Organic foods are foods that have been grown and processed according to very specific principles.  The general idea is that organic food has been grown without chemical fertilizers or pesticides.  

Farmers who grow organic crops use only natural organic fertilizers and non-toxic pest and disease control methods!

Is Organic Fertilizer Better than Chemical?

Let’s look at fertilizer in more detail.  

A common example of chemical fertilizer is NPK – a combination of nitrogen, phosphorus and potassium.  Farmers use this mixture to make their crops grow bigger, faster.  

The resulting young and juicy produce sells well because people like the way it looks.  

But farmers who grow like this may not be giving the soil or crop everything they need to be healthy and nutritionally-rich.  There are many other nutrients besides nitrogen, phosphorus, and potassium that contribute to healthy soil, crops, and food.  

Organic growers believe that trace nutrients such as magnesium, iron, and sulfur are also really important.  And they understand that soil is living, just like our bodies.  It’s full of beneficial bacteria and other microbial species. So, they use more organically complex fertilizers such as compost, vermicast (worm castings) or blood and bone.  

The theory is that these fertilizers are superior to chemical fertilizers, both because they contain a broader range of nutrients, and because these nutrients are in a form that’s easier for plants to absorb, in a natural, healthy balance.  

Additionally, organic fertilizers can feed the microbial life in the soil, making the soil better at holding water and nutrients.  And more water and nutrients make the soil better at feeding crops.

Synthetic Pesticides vs Organic Pesticides

Organic farmers treat crop pests and diseases using a variety of strategies that aim to minimize or eliminate the need for pesticides and herbicides.  Intercropping, companion planting and biological controls are some examples of techniques that organic growers will use.  

If and when organic farmers do need to spray pesticide or herbicide, they use the smallest amount possible, spraying only where absolutely necesary.  They also opt for the safest, least toxic spray they can.

The chemicals that organic farmers may not use depends a lot on whether or not they’re certified, and who they’re certified with.  

Some certifiers are very strict, for example, Demeter, which uses biodynamic growing principles.  Other certifiers, such as USDA Organic, simply provide lists of which substances are allowed and which are prohibited for an operator to be “certified organic”.

Is the USDA Organic Program Really Organic?

USDA Organic – The United States Department of Agriculture Organic program – is the national standard for organic food in the US.  It places enforceable legal limits around what is allowable in organic food. It makes it relatively simple for conventional farmers to switch to organic production.

USDA Organic has come under fire for being too loose with its regulations, allowing substances that most organics-enthusiasts agree are not organic.  This includes certain chemical pesticides, which have “restricted” status, meaning that they’re allowed to be used as a last resort.  

Of course, the final decision rests with the farmer.  So, if they determine that there’s no other way to save a crop, they may well use a chemical spray usually considered non-organic.

The USDA Organic program has also failed to uphold their own principles on occasion.  For example, they have approved imported organic produce that had been fumigated on its way into the country.  

The system isn’t perfect, and there are ways farmers can exploit it.  But it does offer a definite lower limit for what is acceptable in organic production.  

For example, absolutely no GMO (genetically modified organisms) are allowed under USDA Organic certification. And the program provides legal protection for people if they find evidence that their USDA certified organic food isn’t as labelled.  

If you’re concerned about your USDA organic produce not really being organic, you can look for foods that additional certifications, as well.  This can help assure you that your organic food is truly organic.

You can also research growers and manufacturers, directly.  Look at their company websites, read their mission statements, and talk to your local organic grocer about the company’s practices.  

Many organic producers are highly ethical and voluntarily choose to work at a higher standard than the USDA Organic legislation.

What are the Benefits of Eating Organic Foods?

One of the biggest benefits of buying and eating organic foods is the fact that organic food production is more environmentally responsible and sustainable.

As we’ve already touched on, organic growing practices can greatly improve soil health by increasing the diversity of nutrients and microbial species present.  

This healthier soil is better able to hold water and minerals, meaning the crop needs less water for growing and fewer minerals run off into surrounding waterways. This is a huge environmental benefit.  

Organic fertilizers can often be made from waste products, for example, by composting food scraps.  This minimizes waste and reduces reliance on chemical fertilizers, which usually require mining and then shipping over long distances.  Not great for the environment!

Luckily for you, as a consumer, healthy soil makes healthy plants and, then, healthy humans.  Food that’s grown organically in healthy soil tends to contain higher levels of minerals and antioxidants, which are essential for optimal health.  

Of course, organic foods are also free of toxic pesticide and herbicide residues, some of which are carcinogens or neurotoxins.  For example, studies have linked organochlorines to leukemia and organophosphates may cause behavioral abnormalities in children.  Not things you want to be eating on a regular basis!

Related: How to Protect Your Cognition with Diet

There is also concern about health risks from even seemingly relatively pesticides if they buildup in your body.  

See, pesticide and herbicide residues tend to accumulate in fat and fat cells in your body, rather than being detoxified.  

There are very few studies that can clearly point towards the long-term effect this has on human health.  But the evidence suggests that, at high enough concentrations, these residues contribute to hormone disruption, increased cancer risk and nervous system diseases.

What are the Disadvantages of Organic Food?

Organic food is usually more expensive than conventionally grown food.  This is because it’s more labor intensive at the producer level. Many farmers go to a lot of effort to weed without spraying and treat pests and diseases in creative ways.  

Some of the raw materials cost more too.  For example, organic fertilizer costs more than chemical fertilizer and organic pesticides cost more than chemical pesticides.

Additionally, it is sometimes difficult to find organic food, especially when you’re not at home.  There aren’t many restaurants that offer organic options unless that’s their specialty.

Even when you buy raw ingredients to prepare home-cooked food, you’ll still be facing limited options when it comes to certified organic food.  There will be times you simply can’t get the things you want.

And, from personal experience, I can say that sometimes the organic produce section looks a little sad at my local grocer.  

Organic growers don’t always get it right and it can be difficult to bring yourself to pay more for produce that looks smaller and less tasty.  Especially if you’re not 100% confident that what you’re buying is genuinely organic, anyway.

Is Organic Food Really Better for You?

The short answer is: yes, organic food really is better for you!  

While it’s simply not true that organic food is nutritionally superior to conventional food, just because it’s organic, there are other advantages.  

Studies show that organic food generally has less pesticide residue and a higher antioxidant rating than conventionally grown food.  

If you’re expecting your organic food to be entirely pesticide-free, you might be disappointed.  But if you’re just hoping for a safer, healthier option, then eating organics can deliver.

Of course, the best way to eat organic is to grow your own fruit and vegetables.  

Even if you have no green space of your own, there are many ways around this. Some people grow in pots outside their kitchen windows (inside wherever there is enough space and light for plants).  

There are community gardens popping up in most neighborhoods because people recognize the value of growing food organically and locally. You can even find organic gardens on rooftops of apartments and growing inside under artificial light.

Which Foods Should You Buy Organic?

Most pesticides and herbicides are fat soluble.  That means that the fattier your food, the more likely it is that it can hold onto these toxic by-products.  

So, if you want to do some good for yourself, focus on buying organic products with a high-fat content. This means meat, poultry, fish and dairy products are at the top of your list for foods to buy organic.  Vegetable oils, nuts, seeds, grains, and legumes follow closely.

Fresh fruit and vegetables are actually the least important foods to eat organically because they have the lowest fat content of all foods.  However, farmers spray certain fruits and vegetables more than others.

The EWG (Environmental Working Group) puts out a list every year of produce that has the most pesticide residue, known as the “dirty dozen”.  And they put out an annual list of produce that has the least pesticide residue, known as the “clean fifteen”.

These lists compare conventionally-farmed produce and don’t include information about organic food.  They can be a great aid for deciding which produce to buy organically grown.

Take Home Message

Organic food is grown using different techniques than conventionally farmed food. 

Growing organic food focuses on natural strategies for fertilizing the soil and managing pests and diseases.  Organic farmers cannot use certain chemicals and substances in their growth processes.

The USDA Organic program sets a minimum standard for organics in the US, but there are other certifiers that are stricter and will guarantee you higher standards of organic production.  

Organic food generally contains less pesticide residue than conventionally farmed foods and it tends to be better for the environment.  But it can be expensive and difficult to find.

Foods with high fat content are the most important to eat organic because pesticide residues build up in fat tissue.  This process, called bioaccumulation, happens in the human body, too.

This is why people have concerns about the health risks associated with conventional foods, because pesticide bioaccumulation may cause hormone disruption, cancer, and neurological disease.

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