Organic Foods

Understanding Organic Food Labels, Benefits, and Claims

Organic Foods

Organic food has become very popular. But navigating the maze of organic food labels, benefits, and claims can be confusing. Is organic food really healthier? Is it more nutritious? What do all the labels mean? Why is it so expensive? This guide can help you make better choices about which organic foods are healthier for you and better for the environment, and how you can afford to incorporate more organic food into your diet.

What is organic food?

Making a commitment to healthy eating is a great start towards a healthier life. Beyond eating more fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and good fats, however, there is the question of food safety, nutrition, and sustainability. How foods are grown or raised can impact both your health and the environment. This brings up the questions: What is the difference between organic foods and conventionally grown foods? Is “organic” always best? What about locally grown foods?

What does “organic” mean?

The term “organic” refers to the way agricultural products are grown and processed. Specific requirements must be met and maintained in order for products to be labeled as "organic".

Organic crops must be grown in safe soil, have no modifications, and must remain separate from conventional products. Farmers are not allowed to use synthetic pesticides, bioengineered genes (GMOs), petroleum-based fertilizers, and sewage sludge-based fertilizers.

Organic livestock must have access to the outdoors and be given organic feed. They may not be given antibiotics, growth hormones, or any animal-by-products.

What are Genetically Modified Organisms (GMOs)?

Genetically Modified Organisms (GMOs) or genetically engineered (GE) foods are plants or animals whose DNA has been altered. These products have undergone only short-term testing to determine their effects on humans and the environment.

In most countries, organic products do not intentionally contain GMOs.

Although the U.S. does not require GM or GE foods to be labeled, you can still find out whether or not your produce is genetically engineered by looking at its PLU (price lookup) code on the sticky label added to grocery store produce:

Conventionally Grown Organically Grown Genetically Modified

4-digit code

5-digits starting with #9

5-digits starting with #8

E.g. Conventionally grown banana: 4011

E.g. Organically grown banana: 94011

E.g. GMO or GE banana: 84011

The benefits of organic food

Organic foods provide a variety of benefits. Some studies show that organic foods have more beneficial nutrients, such as antioxidants, than their conventionally grown counterparts. In addition, people with allergies to foods, chemicals, or preservatives often find their symptoms lessen or go away when they eat only organic foods. In addition:

  • Organic produce contains fewer pesticides. Pesticides are chemicals such as fungicides, herbicides, and insecticides. These chemicals are widely used in conventional agriculture and residues remain on (and in) the food we eat.

Why do pesticides matter?

  • Children and fetuses are most vulnerable to pesticide exposure because their immune systems, bodies, and brains are still developing. Exposure at an early age can cause developmental delays, behavioral disorders, and motor dysfunction.
  • Pregnant women are more vulnerable due to the added stress pesticides put on their already taxed organs. Plus pesticides can be passed from mother to child in the womb, as well as through breast milk. Some exposures can cause delayed effects on the nervous system, even years after the initial exposure.
  • Most of us have an accumulated build-up of pesticide exposure in our bodies due to numerous years of exposure. This chemical "body burden" as it is medically known could lead to health issues such as headaches, birth defects, and added strain on weakened immune systems.
  • Organic food is often fresher. Fresh food tastes better. Organic food is usually fresher because it doesn’t contain preservatives that make it last longer. Organic produce is often (but not always, so watch where it is from) produced on smaller farms near where it is sold.
  • Organic farming is better for the environment. Organic farming practices reduce pollution (air, water, soil), conserve water, reduce soil erosion, increase soil fertility, and use less energy. Farming without pesticides is also better for nearby birds and small animals as well as the people who harvest our food.
  • Organically raised animals are NOT given antibiotics, growth hormones, or fed animal byproducts. The use of antibiotics in conventional meat production helps create antibiotic-resistant strains of bacteria. This means that when someone gets sick from these strains they will be less responsive to antibiotic treatment. Not feeding animal byproducts to other animals reduces the risk of mad cow disease (BSE). In addition, the animals are given more space to move around and access to the outdoors, both of which help to keep the animals healthy.

Organic farming and locally grown produce

Instead of synthetic pesticides or fertilizers, organic farmers rely on biological diversity in the field to naturally reduce habitat for pest organisms. Organic farmers also purposefully maintain and replenish the fertility of the soil.

Organic vs. Non-organic Produce

Organic produce:

No Pesticides

  • Grown with natural fertilizers (manure, compost).
  • Weeds are controlled naturally (crop rotation, hand weeding, mulching, and tilling).
  • Insects are controlled using natural methods (birds, good insects, traps).

Conventionally grown produce:

Pesticides used

  • Grown with synthetic or chemical fertilizers.
  • Weeds are controlled with chemical herbicides.
  • Insecticides are used to manage pests and disease.

Locally Grown Fruits and Vegetables

What is local food? Unlike organic standards, there is no specific definition. Generally local food means food that was grown close to home. This could be in your own garden, your local community, your state, your region, or your country. During large portions of the year it is usually possible to find food grown very close to home at places such as a farmer’s market.

Why people buy locally grown food:

  • Financial benefits: Money stays within the community and strengthens the local economy. More money goes directly to the farmer, instead of to things like marketing and distribution.
  • Transportation issues: In the U.S., for example, the average distance a meal travels from the farm to the dinner plate is over 1,500 miles. This uses a lot of fossil fuels and emits carbon dioxide into the air. In addition, produce must be picked while still unripe and then gassed to "ripen" it after transport. Or the food is highly processed in factories using preservatives, irradiation, and other means to keep it stable for transport and sale.
  • Fresh produce: Local food is the freshest food you can purchase. Fruits and vegetables are harvested when they are ripe and thus full of flavor

Small local farmers often use organic methods but sometimes cannot afford to become certified organic. Visit a farmer’s market and talk with the farmers. Find out how they produce the fruits and vegetables they sell.

Fruits and vegetables where the organic label matters the most

According to the Environmental Working Group, a nonprofit organization that analyzes the results of government pesticide testing in the U.S., the following 14 fruits and vegetables have the highest pesticide levels on average. Because of their high pesticide levels when conventionally grown, it is best to buy these organic:

  • Apples
  • Sweet Bell Peppers
  • Cucumbers
  • Celery
  • Potatoes
  • Grapes
  • Cherry Tomatoes
  • Kale/Collard Greens
  • Summer Squash
  • Nectarines (imported)
  • Peaches
  • Spinach
  • Strawberries
  • Hot Peppers
Non-organic fruits and vegetables with low pesticide levels

These conventionally grown fruits and vegetables were found to have the lowest levels of pesticides. Most of these have thicker skin, which naturally protects them better from pests, and which also means their production does not require the use of as many pesticides.

  • Asparagus
  • Avocado
  • Mushrooms
  • Cabbage
  • Sweet Corn
  • Eggplant
  • Kiwi
  • Mango
  • Onion
  • Papaya
  • Pineapple
  • Sweet Peas (frozen)
  • Sweet Potatoes
  • Grapefruit
  • Cantaloupe

Does washing and peeling get rid of pesticides?

Rinsing reduces but does not eliminate pesticides. Peeling sometimes helps, but valuable nutrients often go down the drain with the skin. The best approach: eat a varied diet, wash and scrub all produce thoroughly, and buy organic when possible.

Source: Environmental Working Group

Organic meat and dairy

Organic meat, dairy products, and eggs are produced from animals that are fed organic feed and allowed access to the outdoors. They must be kept in living conditions that accommodate the natural behavior of the animals. Ruminants must have access to pasture. Organic livestock and poultry may not be given antibiotics, hormones, or medications in the absence of illness; however, they may be vaccinated against disease.

Use of parasiticide (a substance used to destroy parasites) is strictly regulated. Livestock diseases and parasites are controlled primarily through preventative measures such as rotational grazing, balanced diet, sanitary housing, and stress reduction.

Organic vs. Conventional Meat and Dairy

Regulations governing meat and dairy farming vary from country to country. In the U.S., the major differences include:

Organic meat and dairy:

No antibiotics, hormones, or pesticides are given to animals

  • Livestock are given all organic feed.
  • Disease is prevented with natural methods such as clean housing, rotational grazing, and a healthy diet.
  • Livestock and milking cows must graze on pasture for at least four months a year, while chickens must have freedom of movement, fresh air, direct sunlight and access to the outside.

Conventionally raised meat and dairy:

Typically given antibiotics, hormones and feed grown with pesticides

  • Livestock are given growth hormones for faster growth.
  • Antibiotics and medications are used to prevent livestock disease.
  • Livestock may or may not have access to the outdoors.