Organic Foods: to Buy or Not to Buy?
Elizabeth Peterson, MFA
Conventional vs. Organic: What Is the Difference?
The difference between organic and conventional food begins with the production process. Conventional farmers have the option to use things like pesticides, fertilizers containing synthetic ingredients, sewage sludge (the semi-solid waste by-product from municipal sewage treatment plants), or bioengineering to help produce their crops. Organic farmers, on the other hand, use none of these things. Instead, they use strategies like crop rotation, mulching, and manure to help grow their products.
This difference applies equally to plant and animal products. For example, animals used to produce organic products, such as meat, poultry, eggs, and dairy products are given no antibiotics or growth hormones. The following table lists the differences between conventional and organic farming:
|Use chemical fertilizers to promote plant growth||Apply natural fertilizers, such as manure or compost to feed the soil and plants|
|Apply insecticides to reduce pests and disease||Use beneficial insects (insects that eat other insects) and birds to reduce pests and disease|
|May use antibiotics, growth hormones, and medicines to promote growth and prevent disease||Give animals organic feed; rely on preventive measures, rotational grazing, a balanced diet, and clean housing to reduce disease|
How Can I Be Certain My Organic Food Is Really Organic?
The United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) has national organic standards for agricultural products. These standards regulate the way all foods bearing the USDA organic label are grown, handled, and processed. The only exception to these standards is small organic farmers who sell less than $5,000 a year in organic foods.
These standards mean that organic products, from anywhere in the country, now fall into four categories. Only two categories are allowed to display the USDA organic label. The following table lists these categories and outlines what products making these claims may and may not contain.
|USDA Organic Food Labeling Requirements|
|100% organic products||can display the USDA organic seal|
- Must contain 100% organically produced ingredients, not including added water and salt
|Organic products||can display the USDA organic seal|
- Must contain at least 95% organic ingredients, not including added water and salt
- Must not contain sulfites
- May contain up to 5% of non-organically produced agricultural ingredients not commercially available in organic form or other substances
|Made with organic ingredients (or similar statement)||cannot display the USDA organic seal.|
- Must contain at least 70% organic ingredients, not including added water and salt
- Must not contain added sulfites (except that wine may contain small amounts of sulfur dioxide)
- May contain up to 30% of non-organically produced agricultural ingredients and/or other substances, including yeast
|Made with some organic ingredients||cannot display the USDA organic seal|
- May contain at least 70% organic ingredients, not including added salt or water
- May contain over 30% of non-organically produced agricultural ingredients or other substances
People who choose to “go organic” do so for many more reasons. Here is a list of things you may want to keep in mind while making up your own mind:
- Nutrition—The USDA does not claim that organic food is any better, or any less nutritious than food produced by conventional methods. The only difference between organic foods and conventionally produced foods is the way they are grown, handled, and processed.
- Quality and appearance—Organic foods must meet the same standards of quality and safety as conventionally produced food. But, you may notice organic foods look less perfect than conventionally produced foods. You may also notice that organic fruits and vegetables spoil slightly faster. This is because conventionally produced foods are often selected for their perfect appearance and then treated with waxes or preservatives to prolong their shelf life.
- Pesticides—Some people buy organic foods as a way of avoiding exposure to the pesticides conventional farmers use to protect their crops from molds, insects, and disease, and this may be a factor in your decision making. But, most experts agree that the small amounts of residual pesticides found on conventionally grown produce poses a very small health risk to humans and that the health benefits of eating fresh produce outweigh any risks.
- Environment—Many people opt for organic products because they support the goal of organic farming, which is to benefit the environment by reducing pollution and conserving soil and water.
- Cost—Cost is often a consideration when making the decision to purchase organic products. Most organic products do cost more than their conventionally produced counterparts. This is because the practices used to produce them are, in many cases, more expensive than those used to produce conventional products.
- Taste—Some people claim to be able to taste the difference between organic and nonorganic foods. Others say they cannot. Taste is a personal and very subjective consideration.
In the end, deciding whether buying organic is right for you will be a highly personal decision. Here are some additional buying tips to keep in mind:
- In order to ensure the highest quality, buy your produce in season.
- Try to buy your produce on the day it is delivered. Ask your grocer what day new produce arrives.
- Read food labels carefully. Even organic foods can be high in sugar, salt, fat, or calories.
- Do not confuse natural with organic. These terms are not interchangeable, nor are other common terms like free-range or hormone free. Only foods clearly labeled organic have met USDA organic standards.
- Wash all produce thoroughly before eating it.
- If you are concerned about pesticides, try peeling your produce, or trimming the outer leaves so you can wash it thoroughly. Trim fat from meat and the skin of poultry and fish as some pesticides may collect there as well.
The National Organic Program
US Department of AgricultureCANADIAN RESOURCES:
Canadian Council on Food and Nutrition
Labeling packaged products under the national organic standards. US Department of Agriculture website. Available at:
http://www.ams.usda.gov/AMSv1.0/getfile?dDocName=STELPRDC5078591. Published July 27, 2009. Accessed April 25, 2012.
National Organic Program. United States Department of Agriculture website. Available at: http://www.ams.usda.gov/AMSv1.0/getfile?dDocName=STELDEV3004346. Updated April 2008. Accessed April 26, 2012.
Organic food standards and labels: The facts. The National Organic
Program website. Available at:
http://www.ams.usda.gov/nop/consumers/brochure.html. Updated February 7, 2012. Accessed April 23, 2012.
Organic foods: new options with growing differences. The Mayo Clinic website. Available at:
. Accessed July 29, 2003.
Organic production and organic food: information access tools. U.S. Department of Agriculture website. Available at:
. Accessed March 16, 2008.
Understanding organic labeling. National Organic Program, US Department of Agriculture website. Available at:
. Updated February 2010. Accessed March 11, 2010.
Veneman marks implementation of USDA national organic standards. US Department of Agriculture website. Available at:
. Accessed September 12, 2003.
Last reviewed April 2012 by Brian Randall, MD
Last Updated: 4/26/2012