’Organic’ labeling is thankfully regulated by the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA), so if you see a food labeled Organic accompanied by this official USDA ‘Organic’ Seal, then you can trust it is certified organic. (*If the USDA seal is not clearly visible on the front of the label then it is not certified Organic or held to any such regulated standards or inspections, even if the product claims to be organic!*) But what does this certification mean exactly and what are the USDA standards if any? And does the Organic label really mean the food is any safer or healthier? The USDA defines certified ‘Organic’ to mean: food production using methods that preserve the environment and avoid most synthetic materials, such as pesticides and antibiotics. Organic principles were first set forth and legislated by Congress contained in the Organic Foods Production Act.
Organic farms and processors are required to, (via USDA.gov):
1. Preserve natural resources and biodiversity
2. Support animal health and welfare
3. Provide access to the outdoors so that animals can exercise their natural behaviours
4. Only use approved materials
5. Do not used genetically modified ingredients
6. Receive annual onsite inspections
7. Separate organic food from non-organic food
Clearly not included in this certification is ‘gluten-free’ or any other food sensitivity or allergy protection, or food group elimination. Again thankfully, ‘Organic’ does not discriminate or eliminate any food groups. If nothing else, you can feel better about yourself when paying a little more to buy Organic, knowing that you are also supporting more eco-friendly, humane and inherently more locally grown agriculture. But is organic food any safer or healthier?
In the case of most produce, where you eat the skin of the fruit or vegetable, or the skin is very thin, you will be safer buying Organic, since Organic means using only natural pesticides and nothing toxic or synthetic, and no fertilizer made from sewage. Also, your animal products will not only be raised with no additional synthetic hormones or antibiotics, but the animals will have lived a better quality of life since Organic also means that the farm animal must have access to pasture and natural grasses to eat. So yes, eating organic is safer, without a doubt.
While buying Organic means you are eating in a more ethical, eco-friendly and safer manner, the jury is still out on whether or not Organic food is any more nutritious, and in some cases the foods may be even less nutritious since the foods are not allowed fortified with any added synthetic vitamins or minerals to supplement the nutrients that are naturally occurring. That being said, certified Organic farms are growing in healthier, mineral-rich soils, which will then be absorbed into the agriculture, so therefore the grains may not need additional fortification during processing. But if your only reason for buying Organic is for more nutrient-dense foods, there is not enough data to justify this.
Other labels you will see side by side with the certified Organic products, which are easily mistaken to mean Organic or equally as safe and regulated as Organic but are not, are ‘free-range’, ‘all-natural’ and ‘grass-fed’, which all sound healthy and fancy, and if were actually true would be a plus, but since there is no regulation backing these labels, it is unfortunate that sometimes seeing these phrases are nothing more than a marketing scam, and we can’t know for sure.
For the budget-conscious consumer, luckily there is an unofficial, but tried and true list of ‘must-buy-Organic’ produce items. This list has come to be known as ‘The Dirty Dozen’ because these produce items have been tested to show they consistently have the highest pesticide residue when NOT Organic, and their skin is so thin, the pesticides may absorb through, or they are typically eaten with their skin on. To save time and space, just web-search this list and it will come up multiple times. The first 3 items are peaches, apples and sweet bell peppers! Likewise, there also exists a ‘Clean Fifteen’ list of produce items where buying Organic is not necessary because the skin of the produce is not eaten, or they just don’t test high for pesticide residue. Again, web-search this list and you will save even more money, because buying certified ‘Organic’ does indeed cost about 15% more on average!