The term Organic is applied to food grown without harsh pesticides or certain types of pesticides (yes, it also means any carbon based life form, but that’s not the definition we’re working with today), and in the United States it’s a huge business. There are a myriad of reasons why one might choose to eat Organic food – they have a disease like cancer or an autoimmune disorder; they have small children; or they simply don’t wish to put a bunch of synthetic chemicals into their bodies. Some scoff at the Organic trend, saying that the amounts of pesticides that remain in our conventionally grown (non-organic) food aren’t a big deal, and if they were The Government would do something about it, while others claim it’s simply foolishness to pay more for say, a red pepper, because a farmer grows it differently.
Regardless of how you feel about Organic food and produce, one thing is for sure: Americans, by and large, have become profoundly disconnected from where their food comes from, and what it takes to get it to the grocery store. So to shed a little light on at least the Organic portion of your shopping cart, here are 25 Surprising Facts About Organic Food That You Might Want To Know.
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Contrary to popular belief, and contrary to what the name implies, pesticides are allowed in the growing of USDA Organic approved foods. There are over 40 pesticides on the allowable list that a farm can use and still get the USDA Organic stamp. So if not having pesticides is really important to you, know where your food comes from and what farms use pest control you agree with.
If you’re interested in what the requirements are to earn the label, “organic,” check out this site.
Most organic food travels over a thousand miles to get from the farm to your grocery store, and many organics still come from countries like Mexico and China, so if you're eating organic to help the earth, you may want to pay as much attention to where your food comes from.
Processed foods labeled as "Organic" - say oatmeal or cookies - can contain up to 5% non-organic ingredients and still qualify to carry the USDA "Organic" label.
There aren't any Federal regulations for sustainable or organic seafood because you can't really regulate the ocean contents. So unless it's verified by a third party or farmed seafood, anything that says "Organic" as far as fish and shellfish are concerned is at best bending the truth. It should, however, be noted that there are third parties that rate seafood for sustainability, but again, there's not a US Government standard for this.
Bacteria content for organically grown and conventionally grown produce is about the same, according to researchers at Stanford. However, conventionally raised and produced animal products were about 33% more likely to contain antibiotic resistant microbes. Eek!
It's still really important to thoroughly wash organic produce. Bacteria is different from pesticides and can make you very sick. All produce has bacteria and dirt on it. Wash your food.
The USDA (United States Department of Agriculture) and NOP (National Organic Program) do not inspect companies or foods for certification. There are separate outside accreditation companies that do this. There are three of them, and two of them are for profit. Neither the USDA nor the NOP have any authority in other countries, either. So that "organic" garlic from China or peppers from Mexico? There's no one beholden to USDA Organic standards inspecting the facilities it's grown or processed in. While some countries, like France, have very strict guidelines. China only certifies 30% of it's "organic" produce.
Organically grown and conventionally grown produce may be cross contaminated. Let's say we're getting "Organic" tomatoes grown in Mexico, and conventionally grown tomatoes also come from Mexico. You don't know how they spray the conventional tomatoes, which could be in the same field or one field or farm over. If they crop dust from a plane, US sprayers, or have conventional pesticides in the ground water, those pesticides are going to be in the "organic" produce anyway. There's no specific guidelines for how far apart organic and conventional produce must be grown to maintain organic integrity.
Because crops grown without the harshest pesticides have lower yields, and organic produce sometimes has to travel even further than conventional, organic produce is sometimes up to 50% more expensive than its conventional counterparts.
5 pesticides currently allowed for use in conventionally grown produce in the United States are banned in other countries because they are deemed unsafe. For example, one such group of allowed pesticides is Neonicotinoids, which are the primary suspect for the bees dying because they act as nerve agents on bees. They are also the chemicals linked to kidney disease, Parkinson's, and birth defects in humans.
Non-organic or conventional farming isn't sustainable long term without adding more and more dangerous chemicals. Pests develop tolerances, and stronger pesticides must be used which also leads to soil being depleted, taking us further and further from organic, sustainable mass-growing. While there are short term gains, mostly quantity, making food cheaper, the long term effects of mass pesticide farming could be dire.
Just because something isn't *labeled* organic doesn't mean it isn't organic. There are companies who are committed to growing things naturally but either can't or don't wish to pay for USDA Organic certification, so they'll label their foods "Natural" or "all natural." This label can be kind of ambiguous though, so again, do your research on a particular company or product.
Go Local! Your local farm or farmers co-op may not have a USDA Organic label, but most small farmers and co-ops are more than happy to talk to you about how they grow their produce and what, if any, pesticides they use. There are also co-ops where you help harvest, which actually allows you to be a part of the process of growing your own food. Knowing where your food comes from is vital to knowing what's in it.
Most organic meat is grass-fed for the majority of the time, meaning that generally cows are allowed to graze and roam about doing cow things, and eating grass (their natural diet) as opposed to being cooped up eating GMO soy or corn (which is not their natural diet, at all). This results in happier livestock, better meat for us, and better, sustainable practices for farming.
Eating organic (or local) usually means eating in-season. If you're trying to switch your family to a largely organic diet, stock up when things are in season. Organic strawberries are either impossible or really hard to find (and have to travel disturbingly far) in the fall, so buy them when they're in season, and freeze or preserve them. Canning and preserving is how we ate through the winter just a few generations ago, but we're so far removed from our food now that very few people even consider "stocking up for the winter." Preserving your bounty is easier than ever, since we have freezers and ziplock bags our great great great great grandmothers didn't!
Soil is really important! For a Farm to be certified organic, no prohibited pesticides, GMO seeds or products, or sewage sludge (exactly what it sounds like) can be used on the land to grow organic crops for 3 years. Overall though, organic farming is far healthier for the soil in the long term.
Wines that are labeled or grown organically contain no added sulfates. So if you're someone who gets headaches from red wine or is sensitive to sulfates, try organic wine. And if you're worried about the labeling quagmire that is involved with foreign produce, wine is a little different. Most countries that we import wine from - France, Italy, Argentina & New Zealand - all have very strict agencies for regulating the production of both wine and organic food.
GMO's (genetically modified organisms) can never be used in organic meat or produce production. Meaning that if you purchase "organic" meat or produce, the seeds are non-GMO, and the feed that the animals get is also non-GMO.
Round Up, one of the most common pesticides used and made by Monsanto, and specifically one of it's main ingredients, Glyphosate, is showing stronger and stronger links to cancer, as well as antibiotic resistance. Glyphosphate has seen a large increase in use in the past decade. Two other ingredients in Round Up are becoming issues as well: diazinon is being further researches for being possibly carcinogenic, and Malathion, which the World Health Organization found to cause prostate cancer and non-Hodgkin lymphoma. So if you're someone who mocks people who buy organic, remember what they're trying to avoid putting in their bodies. These chemicals specifically are never used in organic farming, even though some pesticides are allowed.
If you want to know if produce is organic, look at the PLU (price look up) code on the product or sticker. If the first number is a 9, it's organic. If it's an 8, it's genetically engineered (GMO).
Organic chickens (and their eggs) are ALWAYS cage free and are not given antibiotics or vaccines. Their diet includes insects and organic feed, and like other organic meat, is far more natural and better for the animal than the stuff most factory farmed animals are offered.
If you can't find or can't afford organic produce, don't worry, you're not alone. The Environmental Working Group (EWG) has made a list of the "Clean Fifteen" which are the fifteen conventionally grown produce items with the LEAST amount of pesticide residue, and the "Dirty Dozen" which are the dozen most conventionally grown produce with the MOST pesticides and pesticide residue.
You can view these Dirty Dozen and Clean Fifteen here.