But when we go to look at the price tag, it’s almost always more expensive. And with just about everything from produce to crackers to even dog food being sold organic, is it worth it? Let’s dig in.

What Does 'Organic' Mean & Is It Worth the Price Tag?

August 26, 2021
5
 Min Read

If given the option to buy organic, it seems like we should, right? ​ let's dig in.

But when we go to look at the price tag, it’s almost always more expensive. And with just about everything from produce to crackers to even dog food being sold organic, is it worth it? Let’s dig in.

First, let’s start with the definition of organic food from the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA), the department that is responsible for regulating it. In the United States, the term organic means that those foods are grown and processed to a specific set of federally approved standards and methods. That involves many factors like the soil quality, pest and weed control, additives and the way that animals are raised. Organic farming is considered a more natural process and certification requires documentation of the operation along with an annual inspection. [1]

Seems simple enough, but we can’t stop there. It gets a little bit more complicated. There are three levels to organic food: “100% organic”, “organic” (aka 95% Organic), and “made with organic products” (≧ 70% Organic). There are also some other terms similar to organic that we should address. Terms like “natural”, “free range”, “fresh” or “premium”, are what you might see at the grocery store that are not considered organic. [1]

Another variable to understand is the difference between the various organic foods like fruits and vegetables, meat and eggs. Fruits and vegetables are organic if they are grown in “soil that had no prohibited substance applied for three years prior to harvest”. The USDA prohibits most synthetic fertilizers and pesticides in organic farming and to put it into perspective, that includes roughly 900 conventional pesticides. So organic farmers must choose natural pesticides, which must come from an approved substances list regulated by the USDA. However, if a grower has to use a synthetic substance, it must first be approved based on a set of criteria regarding human and environmental health.

When it comes to organic meat, the USDA requires that animals are raised in appropriate conditions where they can live a “normal” life, like grazing on a pasture. It also requires that the animals are fed 100% organic feed and do not receive antibiotics or hormones, including growth hormones. [1]

As far as organic multi-ingredient foods like crackers, the USDA prohibits artificial preservatives, colors or flavors. And remember the three different levels of organic we talked about earlier? Well, depending on what level of organic the food is will dictate how many ingredients must be organic. However, USDA regulations do not allow organic processed foods to contain artificial preservatives, colors or flavors. [1]

Lastly, eggs. Organic eggs must be fed an organic diet (no animal by-products, synthetic fertilizers, pesticides or chemical additives). In addition, chickens are given antibiotics only if there is an infection present.1 And one more interesting tip: chickens have not been allowed to receive hormones since the 1950s, so don’t be fooled by “hormone-free chicken or eggs”, again just a marketing trick. [2]

So after all of that, let’s discuss. Is it worth it?

There certainly are reasons to eat organic both from an environmental and health standpoint. Environmentally, there is less soil contamination, which is great for the short term (your produce) and for the long term (crop yield years from now). Additionally, it encourages sustainable practices like crop rotation and decreases the amount of animal abuse. [3]

From a health standpoint, eating organic most definitely has its benefits. First, studies have shown that pesticides on conventional food kill gut bacteria and decrease your overall health. Second, if you’re eating meat or dairy that is not organic, the hormones added could be disrupting your hormone levels too. Conventional meat and dairy can lead to increased levels of estrogen in humans, which in turn can disrupt neurotransmitters and could increase one’s risk for various cancers. Additionally, organic foods have been seen to have a higher nutrition content. Organic fruits and vegetables usually have higher flavonoids (antioxidants) and lower pesticide residue or bacterial contamination. Lastly, organic foods have reported to have higher omega-3 fatty acid content and lower toxic metals like cadmium. [3]

Now, those are not all of the benefits of eating organic and they also are not a “black and white issue”, so it’s important to know that we do not NEED to eat organic food to be healthy. Which leads us to the next point, to buy organic or not to buy organic?

Buying organic can often come with a high price tag so it might not be feasible for everyone. Experts believe that those that would benefit the most from organic food would be pregnant women, young children or those with compromised immune systems as they are at a higher health risk [4]. However, if you are looking to buy organic without breaking your budget, we ranked what you could buy to get the best bang for your buck. Meat, dairy and eggs can be considered the most important to buy organic, if possible. If those are not in your diet or if you’re able to spend more, consider buying organic produce, starting with those that you would eat the outside skin, like apples or berries, for example. However, remember that by properly washing your produce before consumption, you can remove a considerable amount of pesticides [5].  Lastly, would be processed foods as they are typically not a large percentage of the diet. And even if you’re still unsure if you can buy organic food all the time, that is okay, it’s better to eat non-organic fruits and vegetables than to not eat them at all.

REFERENCES

  1. McEvoy, Miles. “Organic 101: What the USDA Organic Label Means.” Last modified March 13, 2019. https://www.usda.gov/media/blog/2012/03/22/organic-101-what-usda-organic-label-means.
  2. Gonzalez, John. “Poultry and the Hormone Myth.” Last modified March 14, 2016. https://meatscience.org/TheMeatWeEat/topics/raising-animals-for-meat/article/2016/03/14/poultry-the-hormone-myth
  3. "Organic foods: Are they safer? More nutritious?" Last modified April 8, 2020. https://www.mayoclinic.org/healthy-lifestyle/nutrition-and-healthy-eating/in-depth/organic-food/art-20043880
  4. Gerszberg, Deborah. “Is Buying Organic Worth It?”. Last modified May 31, 2013. https://www.cuimc.columbia.edu/news/buying-organic-worth-it.
  5. “How Can I Wash Pesticides from Fruit and Veggies?” Last modified June 7, 2018. http://npic.orst.edu/faq/fruitwash.html#:~:text=Wash%20your%20hands%20with%20soap,detergent%2C%20or%20commercial%20produce%20wash