American consumers fill their grocery baskets with organic foods now more than ever, according to a survey conducted by the Organic Trade Association. In 2018, organic food sales in the U.S. hit a new record—$52.5 billion—an increase of 6.3 percent from the year prior.
Some people think organic foods tout more health benefits, flavor, and safety—for humans, animals, and the planet—than non-organic, conventional foods produced with chemical fertilizers, antibiotics, and growth hormones. But are organic foods really better for you?
What Is Organic Food?
Organic food isn’t just a philosophy; it’s grown or produced by methods that comply with organic farming standards. The standards vary across the world; however, most organic farming operations aim to protect natural resources, promote ecological balance, and conserve biodiversity.
In the United States, organic foods are heavily regulated by the government and backed by federal standards. Food labeling is strictly controlled. Before a food can be certified and labeled organic, it must be verified by an accredited agent with the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA). Certifying agents inspect every step of production, from growing to processing to packaging and labeling. Farmers and food producers are required to keep detailed records, and they are audited at every stage to ensure compliance with organic standards.
Once they are certified, one organic label does not fit all. In fact, there are four distinct labeling categories for organic products that all mean different things, but share the common purpose to help consumers make informed decisions before purchasing foods.
- 100% Organic: This means the food was produced and processed using 100 percent organic methods and organic ingredients. The foods cannot contain any ingredients from the national list of prohibited substances, including genetically modified organisms (GMOs). These products may display the USDA organic seal or the 100 percent organic claim, and the label must include the name of the certifying agent.
- Organic: The majority of organic foods in stores today fall within this category. Food labeled with the word “organic” means that it was produced using only organic methods and contains a minimum of 95 percent organic ingredients. The other 5 percent of ingredients cannot contain GMOs and the ingredients must be included on the national list of permitted non-organic ingredients. These products may also carry the USDA organic seal or simply an organic claim.
- Made with Organic Ingredients: The “made with” organic category means that at least 70 percent of a multi-ingredient product must be made with certified organic ingredients. The USDA organic seal or an organic label cannot be used and the final product cannot be described as organic. Only up to three ingredients or ingredient categories can be referred to as organic. Remaining ingredients do not have to be organically produced, but they must be produced without excluded methods, such as genetic engineering. All non-agricultural products must be allowed on the national list. For example, processed foods may contain some approved non-agricultural ingredients, such as baking soda in baked goods.
- Specific Organic Ingredients: Multi-ingredient products with less than 70 percent certified organic content fall into this category. These foods cannot display the USDA organic seal or prominently display the word organic on the label. Certified organic ingredients and the percentage of organic ingredients can be listed.
Benefits of Organic Foods vs. Non-Organic Foods
But are organic foods healthier? In short, research evidence is mixed. One systematic review concluded that the published research lacks strong evidence that organic foods are significantly more nutritious than conventional foods. Another review of multiple studies found that organic foods may contain more nutrients and provide more health benefits, such as the following:
- More Vitamins, Fewer Pesticides: Nutrient contents in crops vary from year to year and among organic farms. However, some studies show that organic foods provide significantly greater levels of health-promoting nutrients—such as vitamin C, magnesium, phosphorus, and iron—compared to conventional varieties of the same food products. According to these studies, in addition to being higher in these nutrients, organic foods are also significantly lower in pesticide residues.
The National Organic Standard Board allows some synthetic substances to be used in organic food production. Although some chemicals are considered safe in the quantities that are used for conventional farming, health practitioners still warn about the potential harms of repeated exposure. For example, research shows that even low levels of pesticide exposure can affect young children’s neurological and behavioral development. Also, in a study published in the journal JAMA Internal Medicine, women who underwent infertility treatment while consuming produce containing high amounts of pesticides had a lower chance of pregnancy and a higher risk of pregnancy loss.
- No Antibiotics or Synthetic Hormones: By law, organic meat cannot contain synthetic hormones. Conventionally raised animals, with the exception of poultry, can be injected with synthetic growth hormones. This can increase their milk production or cause them to put on weight faster. Trace amounts of these substances can make it into the consumer’s body, and this can contribute to antibiotic resistance. Synthetic hormones in foods such as beef have also been linked to an increased risk of cancer.
- More Healthy Fats, Antioxidants: Organic milk and dairy products may contain higher levels of omega-3 fatty acids (a polyunsaturated fat), according to research. And a review of several studies found that organic meat contained more omega-3 fatty acids and less saturated fats than conventional meat. Consuming omega-3 fatty acids comes with many health benefits, including a reduced risk of heart disease and cancer.
Organic plants produce their own protective compounds—antioxidants—to protect themselves from insects and diseases. A study published in the Journal of Agricultural and Food Chemistry found that organic berries and corn contained 58 percent more antioxidants and 52 percent more vitamin C than conventional ones. In another study published in the same journal, researchers found that organic onions had 20 percent more antioxidants than their conventional counterparts. Organic vegetables and fruits as a whole appear to have more antioxidant benefits than their non-organic counterparts.
What Are the Potential Downsides of Eating Organic Foods?
One of the biggest concerns people commonly cite when it comes to eating organic is cost. For example, in 2018, the global measurements and data analytics company Nielsen showed the average unit price for organic cow’s milk at 84 percent more than conventional cow’s milk—a price difference of $4.76 per unit vs. $2.59, respectively. However, keep in mind that the kind of organic food you purchase (e.g., milk vs. vegetables) and where you shop can make a difference.
Also, just because something is labeled organic or includes organic ingredients doesn’t necessarily mean it’s healthier.
Take, for example, the chocolate-peanut butter cups at the checkout counter or candy aisle of your local grocery store. Although there can be health benefits to eating plain peanut butter or dark chocolate (e.g., both contain antioxidants, fiber, and potassium), the candy versions are loaded with sugar, whether they’re organic or not. Eating too much sugar can increase the risk of obesity, diabetes, and heart disease.
Research shows that people have a cognitive bias toward foods labeled organic, and that they tend to underestimate calories and think that they are much healthier than they actually are. Even organic foods, particularly packaged foods, can be high in empty calories—saturated fats or oils, sugar, and other unhealthy ingredients—and be devoid of vitamins, minerals, fiber, and phytochemicals (the health-promoting chemical compounds produced by plants).
Although some research evidence suggests organic foods come with added health benefits, others conclude that there isn’t enough strong evidence to confirm that organic foods benefit health more than conventional foods. More high-quality studies are needed.
Research aside, some people simply choose to eat organic foods because they think they taste better. Others intuitively feel that foods free of synthetic pesticides, fertilizers, hormones, and antibiotics are better for overall health, even if it hasn’t been proved.
Some people choose to purchase organic food products based on what the Environmental Working Group (EWG) calls the Dirty Dozen list—a regularly updated list that shows USDA findings of the conventionally grown foods most likely to contain pesticide residues. The EWG also created and updated the Clean 15 list, which lists foods least likely to contain pesticide residues. Much of the produce on the Clean 15 list has thicker skins. The thought process is that the dense skin or peel protects the inner fruits and vegetables and, if you remove the skin or peel, you remove the bulk of the pesticides.
The bottom line? Whether or not to buy and eat organic foods is completely up to your personal preferences and what you feel are the best choices for you.
*Editor’s Note: The information in this article is intended for your educational use only; does not necessarily reflect the opinions of the Chopra Center's Mind-Body Medical Group; and is not a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. Always seek the advice of your physician or other qualified health providers with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition and before undertaking any diet, supplement, fitness, or other health program.
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