Do you buy organic? Should you? And what does "organic" even mean? Methodist Health System dietitian Carey Shore explains what makes food organic, why we should know, and when it's worth the trouble — and money — to buy it.
What organic really means
"Organic" is actually a labeling term defined by the USDA, meaning the product meets federal standards for production, processing, and certification under the Organic Food Production Act of 1990. It has been produced “through approved methods that integrate cultural, biological, and mechanical practices that foster cycling of resources, promote ecological balance, and conserve biodiversity.” Translation: No synthetic fertilizers or pesticides, no sewage sludge (gross), no irradiation, and no genetic engineering.
You may have heard of the "dirty dozen," or the 12 most contaminated foods: peaches, apples, sweet bell peppers, celery, nectarines, strawberries, cherries, pears, imported grapes, spinach, lettuce, and potatoes.
When meat is labeled organic, it means that the animals had access to the outdoors and were not given any growth hormones, antibiotics, or other drugs. All of their feed was 100 percent organic too. Where antibiotics are concerned, remember that the farming industry doesn't randomly give out antibiotics. Like humans, animals only get antibiotics when they are ill and they are removed from the herd (it's also good to know that when a dairy cow is ill, any milk it produced is destroyed).
Any product labeled as organic must be USDA certified, and most producers choose to put the optional “USDA Organic” label on the product.
When you should definitely buy organic
There is a lot of debate about this subject, with some studies promoting the benefits of organics for some foods and other studies negating them. There may be some benefit to purchasing organic red meat, poultry, pork, and dairy products, because pesticides may harbor in the skin and fat of some of these animal proteins. There has also been some evidence to suggest that organic animal proteins may contain a higher level of omega-3 fatty acids. Purchasing organic peanut butter that strictly contains peanuts and salt is also recommended to minimize hydrogenated oils and sugar.
Why it's not always necessary
The Environmental Working Group has a "Clean 15" list that primarily includes fruits and vegetables with thick skins. This group consistently reviews pesticide data through ongoing testing of both conventional and organic products. The "Clean 15" foods typically have low pesticide contamination and are very comparable to their conventional counterparts. Pineapples, melons, avocados, corn, mangoes, kiwi, onions, seafood, and quinoa are all on this list.
But is organic food healthier?
Organic does not necessarily mean healthier (but remember that this is an area of great debate). While there may be lower pesticide contamination in organic foods, testing of conventional foods traditionally demonstrates that these foods meet the Environmental Protection Agency’s pesticide contamination standards. There has also been recent research to suggest that organic foods may have higher levels of antioxidants — however, this requires further study.
When to wash
Washing produce will not fully rid any food — organic or not — of all contaminants. However, rinsing foods for at least 30 seconds and scrubbing well is highly recommended.
Looking to improve your eating habits or get them back on track? Meet with your primary care physician to get started.