Organic Foods: What You Need to Know
What does “organic” mean?
The term “organic” is officially defined and controlled by the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA). This means that in order to carry the organic label on the packaging, foods must meet certain standards.
What is organic produce?
Organic produce must be grown without the use of chemicals or pesticides. Farmers must use natural means to control insects and weeds. Only natural fertilizers, such as compost, are used. After harvesting, organic produce cannot be treated with preservatives, such as wax. The organic term also excludes foods that have been altered by scientists, such as seedless watermelon.
The goals of organic farming are to reduce the negative impact on the environment and to increase sustainability. Sustainability means that the farming practices are designed to take care of the land to make sure it is productive and useful for a long time.
What are organic meat and animal products?
Organic meat and animal products must come from livestock raised in a natural environment. This means the farmers give the animals organic feed, clean housing and access to the outdoors. The animals are not treated with the growth hormones or antibiotics often used in non-organic livestock. Farm practices are generally environmentally friendly.
What do the different organic labels mean?
The USDA allows several different organic labels. You may come across the following:
- 100% Organic means the product was produced and processed using only approved methods and organic ingredients. This label often is used on single-ingredient items, like fruit or eggs.
- Organic products contain at least 90% organic ingredients.
- Made from organic products include at least 75% organic ingredients.
- Other labels are common, such as natural, sustainable and grass-fed. Be aware that these terms are not officially defined or controlled by the USDA. There is no guarantee that these products follow the same standards required in order to use an organic label.
Are organic products a better choice than other products?
Organic products are often presented as a healthier, greener option. But are they really different?
As you consider whether organic foods are right for you and your family, remember that no food type or fad is a magic bullet for your health. The organic label means natural farming and processing practices, and is not a guarantee of nutritional content or value.
Whatever you buy, be sure to check nutrition information on the packaging. Continue to follow safe food handling procedures, including rinsing produce and keeping raw meat separate from other foods before cooking. Understanding the facts about organic and non-organic products can help you make informed, healthy decisions.
- Nutrition. Some organic foods have the same nutrition as the non-organic versions, while others may have higher nutritional value. For example, while testing is still underway, it appears that some “regular” grocery-store fruits (like apples) may have the same nutrition as organic fruits. Organic junk food, such as cookies or ice cream, do not contain special extra nutritious ingredients. In contrast, some fruits and vegetables have higher amounts of trace minerals because of the differences between organic and non-organic farming.
- Artificial ingredients. Where organic and non-organic foods really differ is in their exposure to growth hormones, synthetic ingredients and pesticides. Though fertilizers and pesticides are commonly used in the food industry, some people fear the long-term effects these artificial chemicals may have on human health and development. While doctors don’t know for sure what problems artificial fertilizers and pesticides can cause, eating organic foods may reduce the risk of potential health problems.
- Flavor. Because organic foods do not have preservatives, they are often purchased from local growers and therefore tend to be fresh. They also don’t have chemicals and artificial flavors, so they may have a more natural taste. While the organic label doesn’t guarantee better flavor or freshness, you might find they taste better. Try organic produce and dairy products and make up your own mind about flavor.
- Environment. Organic farming is intended to be good for the environment. USDA-certified farmers work to reduce pollution, save water and resources, and decrease soil erosion. They also provide their livestock with more natural living conditions. Organic farmers also do not use pesticides that can build up over time and possibly harm wild animals and plants. Organic foods are more likely to be shipped to local stores, reducing the pollution of shipping across the country.
- Longevity. Because they do not have preservatives, organic products do not usually last as long as non-organic foods. Organic products (especially produce) may go bad more quickly.
- Cost. As you’ve probably noticed, organic products are often more expensive than non-organic foods. This is due largely to the higher cost of organic farming, as well as more limited supplies. As more people use organic products, prices are likely to decrease. In areas of the country where organic products are purchased more frequently, the cost tends to decrease over time.
- KidsHealth. Organic and Other Environmentally Friendly Foods. Accessed 08/11/11
- Helpguide.org. Organic Foods: Understanding Organic Food Labels, Benefits, and Claims. Accessed 08/11/11
- Mayo Clinic. Organic Foods: Are They Safer? More Nutritious?. Accessed 08/11/11
- United States Department of Agriculture. Going Organic. Accessed 08/11/11
- United States Department of Agriculture. Organic Labeling and Marketing Information. Accessed 08/11/11
Copyright © American Academy of Family Physicians
This information provides a general overview and may not apply to everyone. Talk to your family doctor to find out if this information applies to you and to get more information on this subject.