What does organic food really mean?

Go to a mainstream grocery store today and you’ll see an expanded section specifically for organic food. Perhaps you’re looking for the latest nutrition bar you saw at a coffee shop; you’ll likely be directed to the “health” foods section filled with organic, extra virgin expeller-pressed coconut oil, gluten-free rice flour pasta and Annie’s organic children’s snacks.

Though organic foods have been available for over three decades, lately they have been taking the market by storm. Organic grocery sales continue to grow faster than conventional sales and the 2014 Farm Act has mandated $160 million be put toward organic farming production. Interestingly, despite growing demand, the number of farms seeking organic certification has leveled off.

Chart via United States Department of Agriculture Economic Research Service

Consumers often associate organic with healthy, but organic certification focuses solely on how crops are grown and animals are raised. While some organic products are more nutritious, others aren’t. Organic cookies typically have just as much fat and sugar as regular cookies, and those organic potato chips are still deep-fried. Let’s take a look at what organic really means.

Organic labeling standards vary by item, but the general goals of organic farming are to conserve natural resources, promote biodiversity and use only approved substances in production. If you see the USDA organic seal on an item, this means it was produced by a certified organic farm shown to follow organic guidelines such as banning synthetic pesticides, participating in crop rotation and using responsible irrigation. Each year, the USDA requires at least 5% of all farms with organic status be audited for compliance. The USDA organic seal means the following for each item: 

Organic crops like fruits, vegetables, nuts, and grains

Farmers did not use synthetic pesticides or synthetic fertilizers, irradiation, genetically modified organisms or sewage sludge.

Organic beef, pork, and poultry

Animals have access to outdoors and raised on 100% organic feed free of animal byproducts like skin and dried blood; no growth hormones, antibiotics, or other drugs; no irradiation.

Organic certification focuses solely on how crops are grown and animals are raised Click To Tweet

Organic eggs

Hens have 100% organic feed and are free of growth hormones, antibiotics or other drugs. Hens do not have to be cage-free or free-range.

Organic milk

Cows have access to outside at least 120 days of the year and have at least 30% pasture diet; no growth hormones, antibiotics, or other drugs.

There are several reasons why organically-grown crops may be more nutritious for us. Without the aid of synthetic chemicals, plants must build up their own strength to fight off pests. These healthy, natural plant defenses are then passed to humans when consumed.

Organic fruits and vegetables also tend to stay on the vine longer, ripening naturally and building up nutrient stores. They are typically grown in more nutrient-dense soil, which also helps the plants to soak up more nutrition. Think about how much better a homegrown tomato tastes compared to one from the supermarket. Some of the same factors making that garden tomato so delicious also make it more nutritious!

Not ready to pay the premium for organic? Look for U.S.-grown produce and avoid imports. Since the Food Quality Protection Act was passed in 1996, risk from American produce has dropped dramatically. You can also buy organic on selected items that are more likely to be contaminated. Skip organic bananas since the thick peel protects the fruit, but strawberries carry a higher risk. 

Each year the Environmental Working Group puts out their Shopper’s Guide to Pesticides in Produce. It highlights conventional foods that have the most and least pesticide residues.