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Are Organic Foods Right for You?

Understanding the Benefits of Organic Food and the Risks of GMOs and Pesticides

Organic Foods In This Article

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? Do GMOs and pesticides cause cancer and other diseases? What do all the labels mean? 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? Are GMOs safe? 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.

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.
  • 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 people who live close to or work on farms.
  • 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 food is GMO-free. Genetically Modified Organisms (GMOs) or genetically engineered (GE) foods are plants or animals whose DNA has been altered in ways that cannot occur in nature or in traditional crossbreeding, most commonly in order to be resistant to pesticides or produce an insecticide. In most countries, organic crops contain no GMOs and organic meat comes from animals raised on organic, GMO-free feed.

The controversy surrounding GMOs and pesticides

The ongoing debate about the effects of GMOs on health and the environment and whether GM food in the U.S. should be labeled is a controversial one. In most cases, GMOs are engineered to make food crops resistant to herbicides (weedkillers) and/or to produce an insecticide. For example, much of the sweet corn consumed in the U.S. is genetically engineered to be resistant to the herbicide Roundup and to produce its own insecticide, Bt Toxin.

As well as corn, GMOs are commonly found in U.S. crops such as soybeans, alfalfa, squash, zucchini, papaya, and canola, and are present in many breakfast cereals and much of the processed food that we eat. Take a look at your favorite canned or packaged food. If the ingredients include corn syrup or soy lecithin, chances are it contains GMOs.

Are GMOs safe?

While the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and the biotech companies that engineer GMOs insist they are safe, many food safety advocates point out that these products have undergone only short-term testing to determine their effects on humans and the environment. Since the technology is relatively new, no long term studies have ever been conducted to confirm the safety of GMO use, while some animal studies have indicated that consuming GMOs may cause internal organ damage, slowed brain growth, and thickening of the digestive tract.

GMOs have been linked to increased food allergens and gastro-intestinal problems in humans. Many people think that altering the DNA of a plant or animal can also increase the chances of developing cancer. However, so far research into the link between GMOs and serious disease has proven inconclusive.

GMOs and the increased use of pesticides

The introduction of GMOs has had a profound effect on the level of pesticides present on and in our food, and potentially on the health of human beings and the environment. Since most GMOs are engineered for herbicide tolerance, the use of toxic herbicides like Roundup has increased 15 times since GMOs were introduced. Again, there is some controversy over the level of health risks posed by the use of pesticides.

What are the possible risks of pesticides?

  • Some studies have indicated that the use of pesticides even at low doses can increase the risk of certain cancers, such as leukemia, lymphoma, brain tumors, breast cancer and prostate cancer.
  • Children and fetuses are most vulnerable to pesticide exposure because their immune systems, bodies, and brains are still developing. Exposure at an early age may cause developmental delays, behavioral disorders, autism, 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.
  • The widespread use of pesticides has led to the emergence of “super weeds” and “super bugs,” which can only be killed with extremely toxic poisons like 2,4-Dichlorophenoxyacetic acid (a major ingredient in Agent Orange).

Identifying GMOs in U.S.

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

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 in production
  • 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, non-GMO 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, GMOs 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 GMO 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.

What’s in American meat?

It is helpful to understand what the U.S. government allows in feed or to be used in conventional production:

  • Dairy cows – antibiotics, pig & chicken byproducts, hormones (for growth), pesticides, sewage sludge
  • Beef cows – antibiotics, pig & chicken byproducts, steroids, hormones, pesticides, sewage sludge
  • Pigs – antibiotics, animal byproducts, pesticides, sewage sludge, arsenic-based drugs (growth hormones are prohibited)
  • Broiler chickens – antibiotics, animal byproducts, pesticides, sewage sludge, arsenic-based drugs (growth hormones are prohibited)
  • Egg laying hens – antibiotics, animal byproducts, pesticides, sewage sludge, arsenic-based drugs

Source: Animal Feed

Understanding organic food labels

What do the food labels such as “organic,” "natural," "free-range," and "non-GMO" really mean? Understanding this terminology is essential when you’re shopping for organic foods.

The most important point to remember is that "natural" does not equal organic. "Natural" on packaged food is an unregulated term that can be applied by anyone, whereas organic certification means that set production standards have been met. These production standards vary from country to country—in the U.S., for example, only the "USDA Organic" label indicates that a food is certified organic. Similar certification labels are also offered on organic products in other parts of the world, including the European Union, Canada, and Australia.

USDA Certified Organic Food Labels in the U.S.

When you’re shopping for organic foods in the U.S., look for the “USDA Organic” seal. Only foods that are 95 to 100 percent organic (and GMO-free) can use the USDA Organic label.

  • 100% Organic – Foods that are completely organic or made with 100% organic ingredients may display the USDA seal.
  • Organic – Foods that contain at least 95% organic ingredients may display the USDA seal.
  • Made with organic ingredients – Foods that contain at least 70% organic ingredients will not display the USDA seal but may list specific organic ingredients on the front of the package.
  • Contains organic ingredients – Foods that contain less than 70% organic ingredients will not display the USDA seal but may list specific organic ingredients on the information panel of the package.

When shopping for GMO-free food products in the U.S. and Canada, look for the Non-GMO Project Verified seal, which means that no more than 0.9% of the product is genetically engineered.

“GMO free” or “Non-GMO” – without the seal, foods labeled with these terms have not necessarily undergone independent verification.

Certified Organic Food Labels in other countries

European Union Certified Organic Logo

European Union

Australian Certified Organic Logo

Australian

Canadian Certified Organic Logo

Canadian

What does "Certified Organic" mean in the U.S.?

Keep in mind that even if a producer is certified organic in the U.S., the use of the USDA Organic label is voluntary. At the same time, not everyone goes through the rigorous process of becoming certified, especially smaller farming operations. When shopping at a farmers’ market, for example, don’t hesitate to ask the vendors how their food was grown.

Source: Organic.org

Meat and dairy labels in the U.S.: other terms you need to know

The organic label is the most regulated term, but when it comes to meat in the U.S., we often see many other terms used. In order to make informed choices, it is helpful to know what some of these terms mean.

  • Natural or all natural – This label means “minimally processed” and that the meat can’t have any artificial colors, artificial flavors, preservatives, or any other artificial ingredients in it. Animals can still be given antibiotics or growth enhancers and meat can be injected with salt, water, and other ingredients. For example, this term can be applied to all raw cuts of beef since they aren’t processed. The natural label does not reflect how the animal was raised or fed, which makes it fairly meaningless.
  • Naturally raised – This claim should be followed by a specific statement, such as “naturally raised without antibiotics or growth hormones” in order to obtain USDA approval. Read different labels carefully to understand what naturally raised really means to the piece of meat you’re buying.
  • Grass-fed – This term claims that the animals are fed solely on a diet of grass or hay and have continuous access to the outdoors. Cattle are naturally ruminants that eat grass, so they tend to be healthier and leaner when fed this way. In addition, grass fed beef has been shown to have more of the healthy omega-3 fatty acids. However, if meat is labeled as grass fed but not certified organic, the animal may have been raised on pasture that was exposed to or treated with synthetic pesticides or fertilizers.
  • Free-range or free-roaming – Broadly, this term means that the animals weren’t confined to a cage and had access to the outdoors. Unfortunately, there are no requirements for the amount of time the animals spend outdoors or for the size of the outdoor space available. The terms free-range or free-roaming also don’t apply to egg-laying hens. While it’s difficult to tell exactly what free range means on meat packaging, you can contact the producer directly for clarification.
  • Cage-free – The term means that egg-laying hens are not raised in cages. However, it does not necessarily mean they have access to the outdoors. Some eggs may carry the American Humane Certified label but many cage-free claims are not certified, making it a very misleading label.
  • Pasture-raised. This claims that the animals were not raised in confinement and had year-round access to the outside. Again, there are no requirements for exactly how much time the animals spend outside or the size of the outdoor space available, so it can be misleading.
  • No hormones added or hormone-free – This term indicates that animals are raised without the use of any added growth hormones. For beef and dairy products it can be helpful, but by law in the U.S., poultry, veal calves, and pigs cannot be given hormones, so don’t pay extra for chicken, veal, or pork products that use this label.
  • Certified Humane Raised and Handled – This is a voluntary certification regulated by the Humane Farm Animal Care, a non-profit organization aimed at ensuring the humane treatment of farm animals. The label means that animals have ample space, shelter, and gentle handling to limit stress, ample fresh water, and a diet without added antibiotics or hormones. Animals must be able to roam around and root without ever being confined to cages, crates, or tie stalls.

Keeping the cost of organic food within your budget

Organic food is often more expensive than conventionally grown food. But if you set some priorities, it may be possible to purchase organic food and stay within your food budget. Purchase the organic versions of the foods you eat the most and those that are highest in pesticides if conventionally grown.

Venture beyond the grocery store. Consider the following ideas for finding organic food:

  • Shop at farmers' markets. Many cities, as well as small towns, host a weekly farmers' market, where local farmers bring their wares to an open-air street market and sell fresh produce direct to you. Often you will find items for less than you'd pay in the grocery store or supermarket.
  • Join a food co-op. Find out whether there is a natural foods co-op, also called a cooperative grocery store, in your area. Co-ops typically offer lower prices to members, who pay an annual fee to belong. However, you do not need to be a member to shop at a food co-op.
  • Join a Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) farm, in which individuals and families join up to purchase "shares" of produce in bulk, directly from a local farm. Local and organic!

Organic food buying tips

  • Buy in season – Fruits and vegetables are cheapest and freshest when they are in season. You can also find out when produce is delivered to your market. That way you know you're buying the freshest food possible.
  • Shop around – Compare the price of organic items at the grocery store, the farmers’ market and any other venue (even the freezer aisle).
  • Remember that organic doesn’t always equal healthy – Junk food can just as easily be made using organic ingredients. Making junk food sound healthy is a common marketing ploy in the food industry but organic baked goods, desserts, and snacks are usually still very high in sugar, salt, fat, or calories. It pays to read food labels carefully.

Why is organic food often more expensive?

Organic food is more labor intensive since the farmers do not use pesticides, chemical fertilizers, or drugs. Organic certification and maintaining this status is expensive. Organic feed for animals can cost twice as much. Organic farms tend to be smaller than conventional farms, which means fixed costs and overhead must be distributed across smaller produce volumes. Most organic farms are too small to receive government subsidies.

Enjoying the benefits of fish without harmful side effects

Fish is low in saturated fat and can be a good source of high-quality protein, omega-3 fatty acids, and other essential nutrients. Yet common toxins such as mercury are also found in fish. What does this mean? How much is okay? Which fish are safe?

Each year dangerous quantities of mercury are emitted into the air (an aspect of widespread industrial pollution). When it rains, this pollution goes into our lakes and oceans where it contaminates the fish and shellfish that live there. Eating fish contaminated with mercury, a poison that interferes with the brain and nervous system, can cause serious health problems. The top predators, such as sharks, contain the highest levels of these contaminants. Nursing mothers, pregnant women, and young children have the highest risk, so should avoid all large fish (shark, swordfish, king mackerel, tilefish, etc.).

In recent years there has been a huge decline in many species of fish, caused by unsustainable fishing and farming practices. This means that if changes are not made soon, many wild populations of fish may become extinct.

Sustainable seafood choices

Seafood can be part of a healthy diet if you know what type of fish to choose. There are a number of smartphone apps and downloadable wallet-cards for you to keep on hand to use in the grocery store or a restaurant. These guides are updated often and contain the latest information on healthful and sustainable seafood choices. Find links in the Resources section below.

More help for organic foods

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Resources and references

General information about organic food

Organic Foods: Are they safer? More nutritious? – Information on the difference between organic and conventional foods. (MayoClinic.com)

Organic FAQs – “Get Educated” a whole section on organics: What is Organic? Myths About Organic, 10 Reasons to Go Organic, and FAQs. (Organic.org)

Animal Feed – Details how livestock feed affects animal health, and the health of people who consume animal products. (Grace Communications Foundation)

USDA certified organic labels

Certified Organic Label Guide – Information on the significance and how to make sense of the USDA Organic label. (Organic.org)

Organic Labeling and Marketing Information (PDF) – Information on organic labeling in the U.S. (USDA, National Organic Program)

GMOs and pesticides

GMO Facts – Frequently asked questions on the use and safety of GMOs. (Non GMO Project)

Where GMOs hide in your food – Details tests that found GMOs in many packaged foods—including those labeled 'natural,' (Consumer Reports)

The Problem with Pesticides – Examines some of the potential health effects of pesticides. (Toxics Action Center)

Genetic Engineering in Agriculture – Article that highlights why both the risks and the benefits of GMOs may have been exaggerated. (Union of Concerned Scientists)

Autism Risk Higher Near Pesticide-Treated Fields – Research that shows babies whose moms lived within a mile of crops treated with widely used pesticides were more likely to develop autism. (Scientific America)

Pesticides and Cancer – Highlights problems with the evidence linking cancer to pesticide use. (Cancer Research UK)

Find Non-GMO Foods – Database of foods verified as non-GMO, including an iPhone app shopping guide. (Non GMO Project)

Is organic food more nutritious?

Organic or Not? – Is organic produce healthier than conventional? Find out where to spend and where to save for your health. (EatingWell)

Benefits of organic food

Benefits of Organic – Information on various topics related to the benefits of organics. (Organic Trade Association)

Local food

What is local? – How to buy and eat local food and why it matters. (Sustainable Table)

Meat labels

A Brief Guide to Meat and Dairy Labels and Their Relevance to Animal Welfare – (The Humane Society of the United States)

Organic food buying tips

Shopper's Guide to Pesticides (PDF) – List of the produce with the highest and lowest pesticide levels. (Environmental Working Group)

Seasonal Food Guide – Find out what produce is in season in your area of the U.S. and Canada. (Eat Well Guide)

Where to find farmer’s markets

Eat Well Guide – Find local, organic, sustainable food from farms, markets, restaurants and more in the U.S. and Canada. (Eat Well Guide)

Local Harvest – Find farmers' markets, family farms, and other sources of sustainably grown food in your area of the U.S. (Local Harvest)

Agrilicious – Find local sources of organic food from farmers’ markets, family farms, and buying clubs. (Agrilicious)

Local Food Directory (UK) – Find local farmer’s markets and farm shops in the UK. (LocalFoods.org.uk)

Australian Farmers' Markets Directory – Find local farmers' markets in Australia. (AFMA)

Farmers’ Markets Canada – Find farmers’ markets in your region of Canada. (Farmers’ Markets Canada)

Sustainable seafood choices

NRDC Walletcard (PDF) – This downloadable walletcard from The Natural Resource Defense Counsel lists the mercury levels in fish and offers recommendations for how often to eat those types of fish. (NRDC)

The Monterey Bay Aquarium Seafood Watch Pocket Guide – These regional guides offer "Best Choices" for abundant, well managed seafood choices that are fished or farmed in environmentally friendly ways. Seafood to "Avoid" lists overfished and/or fished or farmed in ways that harm other marine life or the environment. (Monterey Bay Aquarium)

Monterey Bay Aquarium Seafood Watch App for Android and iPhone – Provides free, up-to-date recommendations on your phone with detailed seafood information. (Monterey Bay Aquarium)

Authors: Lawrence Robinson, Jeanne Segal, Ph.D., Maya W. Paul, Gina Kemp, M.A., and Robert Segal, M.A. Last updated: December 2014.