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Harvard Commentaries
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Food for Thought Food for Thought
 

Understanding Organic Foods


July 09, 2013


By Christina Kearney, M.S.
Brigham and Women's Hospital

Over the past few years, the number of organic foods available at the grocery store has increased significantly. You'll find everything from produce to meat to packaged snack foods.

However, when compared with non-organic foods, organic options can be quite expensive. So when it comes to making choices at the grocery store, how do you know which choice is best for both your body and your wallet?

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The Meaning of Organic

Products marketed as "organic" must meet certain standards and regulations set by the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA).

As part of the USDA, the National Organic Program (NOP) created production and labeling standards for organic crops grown and animals raised on organic farms.

Organic crops are grown without using:

  • Pesticides
  • Petroleum- and sewage-based fertilizers
  • Ionizing radiation

Also, genetic engineering and synthetic substances are prohibited in packaging of organic foods.

To be raised organically, animals must be:

  • Fed organic feed
  • Allowed access to the outdoors
  • Given no antibiotics or growth hormones

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How Can I Be Sure I Am Buying Organic?

In addition to regulations for growing organic crops and raising organic animals, the USDA also has standards for labeling organic products. They are labeled based on the percentage of organic ingredients they contain.

  • 100% Organic: These products contain only organic ingredients. They may display the "USDA Organic" seal.
  • Organic: These products contain at least 95% organic ingredients. They may also display the "USDA Organic" seal.
  • Made with Organic Ingredients: These products contain 70%-95% organic ingredients. They cannot display the "USDA Organic" seal.
  • Products containing less than 70% organic ingredients can only use the term "organic" to describe the organic ingredients within the ingredients list. They cannot display the "USDA Organic" seal.
  • "Natural" does not mean organic. The term "natural" is not regulated by the USDA. It may appear on food labels without meeting organic standards.

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Is Organic Food Healthier or More Nutritious?

There has been much debate about whether organic food is healthier or more nutritious than conventionally grown food. Many people believe the term organic means food is healthier. In fact, organic only means that a food was grown or raised according to certain standards. It does not describe the quality of the food or its nutrient content.

With that said, there have been scientific studies that show that organic produce tends to have slightly more vitamins, minerals and phytonutrients (compounds in plants that protect against certain diseases) than conventionally grown produce. At this time, it is unclear that there is a true nutritional benefit to buying organic. But choosing any produce will provide important vitamins, minerals and phytonutrients we need.

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What About Pesticides and Antibiotics?

Many people believe that by choosing organic, they are eating safer foods. It's true that by choosing organic, they are limiting their exposure to pesticides. But the term organic doesn't reflect how safe food is.

In conventional farming, pesticides are used to protect the crops from a variety of diseases and insects. Because these may be sprayed directly onto the plant, some of the produce may have pesticide residue. The data from the USDA show that while organic produce has fewer pesticide residues than conventionally grown produce, the amounts for both are below the level for safe consumption. As for additives, hormones and antibiotics, these are prohibited from organic farms. But there are not enough data to determine whether consuming only organic animal products has benefits.

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Making the Organic Decision

Fruits and vegetables, whether organic or conventional, are essential to a healthy diet.

Organic foods are often more costly. For many people, going entirely organic is just not in the budget. So, to balance the costs with benefits, pick and choose which types of produce to buy organic.

Each year, the USDA releases a list of the conventionally grown produce that tends to be the most and least contaminated with pesticides. The Environmental Working Group calls these the Dirty Dozen and the Clean 15. The produce on the dirty dozen list are those that are most likely to contain pesticide residues, and be contaminated with the more dangerous pesticides. When possible, these should be bought organic. The clean 15 are those least likely to contain pesticide residues. Spending the extra money on organic may not be as beneficial with these.

But, whether conventional or organic, fruits and vegetables have health and nutrition benefits that outweigh the potential risks – eat a variety as often as possible!

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Christina Kearney, M.S. is a dietetic intern at Brigham and Women's Hospital. She graduated with a B.S. in Biology from Boston College and a M.S. in Biomedical Science from Tufts University, and completed her D.P.D. program at Simmons College.

 

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