Unless you have not been in a grocery store in the past decade, you no doubt have noticed the explosion in popularity of organic foods.
Billed as better for you and better for the environment, consumers are shelling out big bucks to buy organic. But, what is organic food? Is it really better for you or just the latest food fad that will be forgotten in a few more years?
So much has been said recently about the type of food we are eating and how it is getting to our table. The media throws around words like ‘organic’ and ‘natural’ and phrases like ‘farm to table’ so much so that it can appear a little daunting if you’re not completely sure what each category is. Considering all the different options out there, making sure you understand the definitions before you start shopping will make it easier to select the best food for you and your family.
What is Organic Food?
In order for a food product to be labeled as ‘organic,’ the farmer who grew the food must be certified as following the standards set forth by the National Organic Program (NOP) of the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA). This program was created by a law passed in 1990. What surprises many is that the organic certification has nothing to do with the food itself. The certification only ensures that the farmer is following practices set forth by the NOP.
“Federal agencies, usually the U.S. Department of Agriculture or the Food and Drug Administration, regulate what claims companies can make about their food,” explains Alice Rolls, the director at Georgia Organics. ‘Certified Organic’ is the most strictly enforced, and is the best bet for getting the healthiest, most natural, and chemical free food.”
According to the Food Marketing Institute website (FMI.org), “‘Organic’ refers to how the food is produced. The food must be grown and processed using organic farming methods that recycle resources and promote biodiversity - two key elements of environmentally sustainable agriculture.”
For example, if a farmer is growing spinach that he wants to sell as ‘organic,’ he must rotate his crops from season to season. He must also not use synthetic materials like pesticides, except for a long list of materials deemed safe by the USDA or the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). The farmer must work to increase soil fertility over time by planting other species that will help prevent erosion and bring nutrients back into the soil.
In essence, food grown organically (which might be a better term than organic food) is food that is grown in the same way that farmers grew food before the so-called “green revolution” of the 1950s and 1960s that ushered in synthetic fertilizers and pesticides.
“Organic food is tastier, chemical free, and grown by a farmer using natural methods that benefit your health and the environment,” Rolls says.
What are the Health Benefits?
So if the organic label has nothing to do with the food being sold, but more the practices of how it was grown, why should you buy it? Supporters of organic food claim that the fruits, vegetables, grains, and meats that result from these practices taste better and are better for you.
The claimed health benefits of organic food falls into two categories. The first is that organic food has more nutrients than conventionally grown food. The second is that organic food is free of pesticides, and that exposure to these pesticides is harmful over time. Whichever school of thought you agree with, it seems as though many consumers are getting savvier about this idea and making a choice to cook and eat in places that serve up organic dishes. This is evident through the increase in popularity of farmers’ markets as well as restaurants who are disclosing more about the produce they use on their menus.
“People have become more health conscious and concerned about consuming synthetic products used on their foods,” notes Chris Hadermann, of Milton’s restaurant which has three acres of farmland on the restaurant grounds where they grow the fresh vegetables that are used in their dishes. “Because we use only natural products in our soil and plants while they are growing, the produce itself is healthier.” It seems that people are now demanding healthier food in their kitchens as well as in the restaurants they frequent.
“As we learn more about the importance of food for our health—that we are, literally, what we eat —and understand the scientific justification for this, people will continue to demand cleaner, better whole foods,” says Executive Chef Linton Hopkins owner of Restaurant Eugene, which uses organic ingredients in its menu items.
The FDA regulates whether health claims can be made on food packaging or not, like whether broccoli can help prevent cancer. In order to approve a claim like that, the FDA requires scientific studies to be done showing such a benefit. To date there have not been any studies that really prove that organic food is better for you, but industry experts are working on it.
In 2009, a research survey was presented at the EcoFarm summit by Dr. Charles Benbrook of The Organic Center comparing vitamin and mineral levels of foods grown in the same place at the same time: one set organic, one set conventional. These studies were repeated in multiple places with different crops, and the nutrient levels of each set were recorded. The results were that organic foods were higher in concentration for about two thirds of the vitamins and minerals tested. The conventional foods were higher in protein, nitrates, and about one third of vitamins and minerals. In those vitamins and minerals that were higher in the conventional foods, the differences were small, less than 10%. In those vitamins and minerals that were higher in organic foods, the differences were typically much larger, usually 20% or more.
It turns out that the application of synthetic, high-nitrogen fertilizers for conventional foods does increase plant growth but does not increase the nutrition of the plants. So conventional farmers get higher yields (more tomatoes for example), but those extra tomatoes don’t have any more nutrition in them. You’d have to eat more conventional tomatoes to get the same nutrition as you’d get from organic tomatoes. That’s what is meant by nutrient density. Over 100 studies produced over the past 15 years have shown that organic foods typically have a higher nutrient density than conventional foods.
This nutrient density affects the taste of food. The denser the nutrients, the more complex the flavor as your taste buds come into contact with different nutrients at the same time. That’s why a tomato bought from the supermarket will taste watery compared to one grown in your backyard. Researchers believe that the better taste and higher nutrient density of organic foods will increase how satisfying you find food, which will reduce overeating.
What are the Environmental Benefits?
The environmental benefits of organic foods are harder to determine than the health benefits. No farmer wants his fields eroded down to bare rock, so practices like crop rotation and cover crops are age-old techniques to help the land recover from what we take out in the form of food.
Organic certification does allow you to know that the producer is following these minimum standards, which you may not know about conventional producers. Additionally, the restrictions on fertilizers and pesticides helps ensure that the poisoning of groundwater is minimized.
“There are a lot of negative ramifications to conventional style agriculture. One aspect involves the use of chemical pesticides and fertilizers,” says Christine Anthony, co-producer and co-director of GROW!, a documentary about organic and sustainable farmers in Georgia. “Not only do these chemicals end up in the food that people eat, but a lot of the chemicals never break down and end up in our waterways, poisoning wildlife and destroying valuable ecosystems. Organic farming is based on balancing nature, not destroying it.”
Pesticides have been a major issue ever since Rachel Carson wrote about the dangers of the pesticide DDT in her book Silent Spring in 1962. Supporters of pesticide use say that these chemicals do no harm as long as they are used in accordance with guidelines set by the EPA. Organic food advocates, on the other hand, say that these artificial chemicals do not belong in our bodies and will poison us over time. Unfortunately, the science is out on which side can claim final victory. These kinds of studies will take decades to complete because long-term exposure to substances is exactly that: long term.
In the meantime, we do know that organic food has about one-third the pesticide residue of conventional food. Organic food is typically not entirely pesticide-free because certain synthetic and natural pesticides are permitted under the organic regulations. Additionally, it is not uncommon for an organic farm to be sited next to a conventional farm. When the conventional farmer sprays his crops, a certain amount of it will drift on the wind to the neighboring fields.
With more people becoming aware of the issue of pesticides, they are asking their local food markets where their produce is coming from.
“Even farms that aren’t certified are growing chemical free food, so don’t be shy about asking questions,” encourages Rolls. “For example, if a farm is not Certified Organic, ask whether they used synthetic pesticides (really bad for your health) or synthetic fertilizers (really bad for the environment). While you’re chatting, you might as well ask for a sample. Nothing will let you know how fresh something is than a taste of the product itself.”
Where Can Organic Food Be Purchased?
Over the past few years, the options for getting organic food have expanded tremendously. In most cases, organic food is sold right next to conventional food at the supermarket. You can also go to local farmer’s markets, where many of the sellers grow their food organically.
“Most of the farmers markets run from April-November/December so it’s important that people shop every season, not just in the spring and summer months,” explains Rolls. “Atlanta area farmers markets can be found at Local Harvest, a great online resource for finding farmers markets, family farms and other resources nationwide.”
If you want to go more direct, you can join a community supported agriculture program (CSA). In a CSA, or food-co-op program, you buy a share of a farmer’s production. Most of them require you to pay a certain amount for the season up front and in return you get a portion of whatever is available for harvest each week. Some even deliver fresh produce and/or meats from a local farm to your door. There are also many websites dedicated to helping you find organic foods. But perhaps the best place to get organic food is just outside your door. Start a garden, get a couple chickens or rabbits, and you will know exactly where that food comes from and what has gone into it.
What Is the First Step?
From the farmer’s perspective, there is an enormous drawback to organic certification: it can be expensive. Many good farmers that follow Earth and people-friendly practices simply choose not to pursue certification because of the cost. One of the best ways to know for sure where your food is coming from is to get to know your local farmers or get involved with the many organic food programs available out there.
You can meet them at farmers markets or you can take a trip out to the farms and see for yourself what their practices are. Many farmers are perfectly happy to show you around (so long as you’re not interfering with harvesting or planting time). It is relationships formed between the farmer and the consumer that will ensure the quality of the food being grown.
“Look for farms that display the Certified Organic seal. Those are the farmers going above and beyond.” advises Rolls.
In the end, organically grown foods are those that satisfy a certain set of minimum standards. Like any set of rules there are exceptions and loopholes, those who go above and beyond the minimum, and those who exploit the loopholes. If you want the very best for your health, for your enjoyment, or for the environment, you must take the time to know where your food is coming from.
Georgia Organics, www.georgiaorganics.org
Milton’s Cuisine and Cocktails, www.miltonscuisine.com
Restaurant Eugene, www.restauranteugene.com
The Organic Center, www.organic-center.org
White Oak Pastures, www.whiteoakpastures.com
Organic vs. Natural
Walk into any supermarket and right next to certified organic foods will be foods labeled as “natural” or “hormone-free.” What do these labels mean and how are they different from organic?
The short answer is that organic is the most stringently regulated, while the others are less so. Don’t confuse them with the term ‘organic.’ Only foods that are grown and processed according to USDA organic standards can be labeled organic.
- Natural Foods: According to the FDA, “Natural foods are processed without preservatives or additives, but may have been grown with the use of pesticides or other conventional methods.” The FDA regulates the term ‘natural’ only as it applies to added color, synthetic substances, and flavors.
- Organic: To use the term “organic” on a food package, farmers and manufacturers must verify through an independent auditing agency that production processes have met all the organic guidelines set by the U.S. Department of Agriculture. USDA-certified organic produce comes from farms that have refrained from using synthetic herbicides, pesticides, fertilizers and genetically modified seeds for at least three years.
- Hormone-free: this means no hormones (like bovine growth hormone) or antibiotics were unnaturally given to the animal. The USDA-certified organic label cannot contain any artificial hormones.
Where’s The Beef?
Produce isn’t the only food that carries the organic label, beef can be organic too. Will Harris, owner of White Oak Pastures, weighs in on what it is and what consumers should look for.
White Oak Pastures is a family owned and operated grass-fed beef producer committed to sustainability and low-stress animal handling that also minimizes environmental impact.
What is the main difference between organic meat and free range?
Organic meat is often raised in full confinement (CAFO’s, Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations). The USDA organic standard requires that the animal be fed organic feed, which is often organic corn and soy. The standard does not require that the animal be allowed to express instinctive behaviors, or eat a natural diet.
Free range only means that the animal is given some access to the outdoors. It is often only a token. I think that consumers should look for American Grass-Fed Association certification. Also, look for Whole Foods Market’s global animal partnership and animal welfare rating.
Why is the price point different between different meats?
When consumers ask producers to raise meat differently, they are asking the farmer to give up tools that science has developed that lower the cost of production. This causes the cost of production to go up. Farmers have to charge more to produce meat that has a higher production cost. The farmer would go broke if he didn’t charge more for this meat. Farmers began raising meat industrially because they could do it cheaper, and make more money.
What should consumers look for when buying their meat?
The consumer should learn as much as possible about the person who produces the food that they feed to their families. Transparency is the key.