13+ Things You Didn’t Know About Organic Food

Before you buy organic or natural foods, see what today's food experts told us about making smart food choices.

By Perri O. Blumberg
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    Eddie Guy

    "Organic" isn't a new idea.

    Before World War II, all crops were organic. It was only afterward that farms used new, synthetic pesticides and chemicals to minimize weed, insects, and rodent damage. What's not new? Many worry about the long-term effects of ingesting chemical residues from "conventional" produce (i.e., sprayed crops), as well as the impact these treatments have had on our planet and our resources.

    Organic isn't just for the rich.

    Many are making efforts to help everyone access organic food, from giant companies like Walmart to local non-profits like Growing Power, a Milwaukee community garden that helps thousands of area residents buy affordable, sustainable food.

    78% of U.S. families buy some organic food.

    Yet according to the Organic Trade Association, even though sales of organic food and beverages have grown from $1 billion in 1990 to an estimated $29 billion in 2011, that only represents 4.2% of all food sold in the U.S.

    Pregnant women and kids: Pay attention!

    These groups may benefit most from organics. Studies show that fetuses and young children might be harmed by exposure to even low levels of pesticides.

    Everyone can eat an organic diet.

    One popular criticism is that farmers can't grow enough to supply organic food for all. It's true that if everyone needed to eat organic meat in quantity, it would be difficult for today's agribusiness to produce enough organic feed to nourish the livestock. That said, if people ate less meat, and we had a large-scale shift in thinking, it would be possible for our lands to be developed to yield organic produce as they did before World War II. Also,  we'd probably go farther in the fight against hunger.


    If you think [insert organic granola bar name here] is a cute little artisan line, think again.

    The majority of organic brands you see in the grocery aisle are owned by giant corporations. Bear Naked? Kashi? Morningstar Farms? Kellogg. Naked juice? Pepsi. Odwalla? Coca Cola. LaraBar? Cascadian Farm? General Mills. And the latest is the acquisition of Bolthouse Farms by Campbell Soup Company for over $1.5 billion. (Look up your favorite brands here.)

    Organic could still come from China.

    To get to your plate, most food travels over 1,000 miles—even organic food. Check the labels or ask the market manager to figure out the origin of your organic produce, and try to buy local. In addition to helping the environment, shopping local keeps dollars in your community. Note: Even if a local, small farm isn't certified organic, many of them use organic methods.

    Don’t picture happy animals roaming on idyllic farms just because it’s organic meat.

    The USDA requires that, “organic meat, poultry, eggs, and dairy products come from animals … given no antibiotics or growth hormones.” But this could just mean the animals ate organic corn instead of conventional corn. Organic meat is probably worth the expense to reduce your exposure to antibiotic-resistant bacteria.

    Skip labels that call seafood organic.

    When it comes to fish and ocean life, there are no federal regulations that makes something "sustainable" or "organic." So if you see seafood marked as such, be wary: It's not required on a state or federal basis to meet any specific standards, it hasn't been tested for toxicity, and it's probably more expensive.

    You can save your milk money.

    According to a recent article in Pediatrics, researchers found that milk from cows given hormones seems safe for kids and concluded there is no significant difference in the estrogen concentration of organic versus conventional milk. Their surprising recommendation: Drink skim milk (organic or not), because higher-fat milks contain more estrogen, which has been linked to cancer and other hormonal issues.

    Organic is not about superfoods.

    A recent Stanford meta-analysis claimed that "eating organic doesn't give you any health benefits," which caused a lot of commentary on whether organic was better for you. However, researchers honed in on nutrient makeup without examining pesticide residue and antibiotic resistance. They also left out the bigger picture: Organic farming systems replenish soil and protect important resources like water, compared to conventional farming which can contaminate soil and water with chemicals and nitrogen.

    You can’t rinse off pesticides from conventional produce.

    Washing conventional produce doesn’t remove all its pesticides and transform it into organic. Rinsing might wash some pesticides from the food’s surface but not from within the flesh. (Washing does remove food-borne-illness pathogens, so don’t skip it.)

    Processed food that's organic is still processed food.

    If a food comes out of a box and is labeled organic, it means it's healthier only in that it was minimally produced without artificial ingredients, preservatives, or irradiation. And you can feel good that workers, animals, and the environment were all treated better in the process. However, it might not be nutritionally better for you!

    "Conventional" farming isn't sustainable.

    Chemical fertilizers are only so successful in controlling pests before they develop tolerances. Then, new stronger formulas need to be developed, which eventually taps out our soils. The short-term gains of conventional farming (ie, cheaper prices) are actually reducing our chances to return to organic methods.

    Organic seeds are in danger.

    Four of the world’s largest agrochemical companies own a whopping 50% of the world’s farmed seeds—and they aren't breeding them for organic conditions. Just as we need to think about the soils, we also need to think about the seeds; conserving and developing crop genetic diversity is essential.

    Less than 1% of all American crops are organic.

    Based on the most recent data collected from Organic-World.Net, only .6% of American crops are organic and without genetic modification.

    Organic crops are less likely to be buggy.

    Because the soil is nourished by natural methods, the crops are better equipped to resist disease and insects. When pests get out of hand, organic farmers rely on natural options like insect predators, traps, and mating disruption to get rid of them and restore balance to their land.

    "Organic" doesn't mean 100% organic.

    According to the USDA, unless it says "100% organic," any item labeled "organic" only needs 95% of its ingredients to have been organically grown. Also, some ingredients are exempt from the definition because they are "too difficult to source organically," including foods using sausage castings, some coloring, celery powder, and fish oils.

    Calling your food "natural" is easier than getting an "organic" seal of approval.

    Organic foods undergo intense USDA regulations: No synthetic fertilizers, synthetic growth and breeding hormones, antibiotics, and GMOs; any pesticides used must be natural. It takes three years, and thousands of dollars in fees, for farms to go organic. Once certified, farmers get regular inspections, keep detailed logs and must stay prepared for surprise visits to test their soil and water. “Natural” foods don't have such rigorous scrutiny. 

    Organic crops aren't just for food.

    Everything from t-shirts to napkins and cosmetic puffs can be purchased as certified organic products that are made from organic fiber. Organic flowers and organic furniture are also rising in popularity, too.

    Organic or not, don’t skip your fruits and veggies.

    If you pick conventional produce, the Environmental Working Group came up with the "Clean 15" (low-pesticide residue on conventional crops) and the “Dirty Dozen" (highest pesticide residue, might make more sense to buy organic). Remember that eating fruits and vegetables, however they're grown, is far better than skipping them completely.Though these lists were intended to help inform consumers about the level of pesticide residues on nonorganic crops, some people mistakenly believe that nonorganic produce should be avoided. Not so: Any plant-rich diet has proven health benefits, so crunch on!

    Sources: Organic Valley; Alliance for Food & Farming; Brendan Brazier, Best selling author of Thrive, Formulator of Vega; USDA; Organicnewsroom.com; Jenny Gensterblum, Chef at Léman Manhattan Preparatory School; HappyFamily,Tara DelloIacono Thies,registered dietitian and nutritionist at Clif Bar & Company; University of California at Berkeley; countdownyourcarbon.org, omorganics.org; Carrie Brownstein, Seafood Quality Standards Coordinator at Whole Foods; thedailygreen.com.


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    Your Comments

    • siuaggie

      Feed Yourself = organic
      feed the world= GMO
      and mr bloomberg read a book or a take a couple of classes before  you post something controversial.
      For your personal enlightenment, Fertilizers are for nutrients, not for controlling pest, pesticides control insect pest and herbicides control weeds. In GMO fields many companies require a non GMO “refuge” usually representing 5 percent of the field to allow weeds and insects a place to survive. These companies are profit driven such as any other business, but they are aware they cannot change ecosystems single handily and have positive long term outcomes. Manure used to also provide much of the industries fertilizer, which would be considered organic, but there are not enough beef and livestock producers left to provide. Another point some un informed critics may take interest in, is that there are often higher premiums
      that pay producer more for nonGMO products. While they are still allowed to use chemicals, the seed and final product contain no genetic modification. Seeds and plants cannot tell if they are are receiving “organic” nutrients or “chemical” and neither can their offspring.

      end rant. merry christmas

    • http://twitter.com/Seola1 Mary

      Nice fluff and all, but not a single point is true (and a few don’t even make sense – fertilizers don’t keep off bugs… duh).  Organic really truly means very little and the grading process starts as little as 75% to put the word on a label, NOT 95%.  All-Natural, Pure or Hypoallergenic are also completely useless labels.

      • Mrgreenjeans

        actually, it’s 70%

    • http://twitter.com/misshellmybelle michelle torres.

      So what’s left to eat? …Seriously…

    • http://pulse.yahoo.com/_W2QZ5FVYBJ2GAU55WCX5NLQOWA PhilJ

      ‘Conventional’ farming is not sustainable? ‘Conventional’ farming has yielded much more crops with less acreage than organic farming. Organic farming is not sustainable, since we would have starved to death years ago if not for farming technology like pestisides and fertilizer. This entire article is propoganda and BS.

      • biochemists_are_sexy

        Isn’t it amazing that the anti-GMOers think that they’re such a fringe movement, yet this article, the Elle article, and dozens more as well as most media coverage takes the anti-GMO stance? I never understood that.

      • TecMan

        Starting w/last points 1st, all articles are influnced by their writers & are more or less propaganda. Conventional farming over a hundred yrs.ago did not involve huge megacombines overfarming large swaths of land with the same crop year after year draining ths soil til they have to use unnatural (man made) chemicals to get crops to grow at all! The foodstuffs grown on today’s conventional combines are becomming more nutrinitonally equal to cardboard. Unfortunatly, organic farming might be slightly marginally better depending on if its done by corporate Monsanto like combine or a small farmer trying to stay alive by farming responsibly. The fact that the human race is growing out of control makes any kind of farming unsustainable according to your logic. In another hundred years there won’t be enough land on 2 earths to grow enough food for everyone.

    • Anonymous

      Calling other people idiots shows you lack understanding.  I prefer–so far as I can afford it–to eat produce that was not treated with chemicals.  I don’t eat meat (except fish), so I don’t worry about that, and I prefer wild fish over farmed.  If you don’t want to buy organic natural foods, don’t.  Some of us do.  Thank you.

      • Martin

        It’s you that lacks understanding.  Read Tom’s comments carefully.  The only people he called idiots were the authors of this piece.  He then listed a few of the reasons. 

        “Organic” does NOT mean no chemicals.  It means “natural” chemicals rather than “synthetic” chemicals.  For example: Nicotine Sulfate is used as an “natural” insecticide even though it is much more toxic to humans and other mammals.  (Nicotine Sulfate will be banned in 2014.)  A common “natural” fungicide is copper sulfate; it is much more hazardous to humans than “conventional” fungicides.  Copper isn’t the only heavy metal used “organically”.  Arsenates are used in both insecticides and rodenticides.  Aluminum Sulfate is a common molluscicide.  Heavy metals do not biodegrade, they persist in soil for years.  Fortunately, arsenates are not used much any more, but your “organic” produce may have been treated with them. 

        “Organic” does NOT mean no antibiotics.  It means antibiotics are not given as a prophylactic.   If the animal got sick, it could have been treated with antibiotics and still sold as “organic”.

        I’m not claiming that ALL “organic” food has more toxic chemicals than “conventional” foods.  Some “organic” farmers use very little chemicals.  Others use “natural” chemicals by the ton.  Both types are legally able to label their food Organic.

        I’d also note that on the third slide the authors state that 4.2% of the food SOLD is “organic”; but on slide 14 they state that 0.6% of the food GROWN is “organic”.  Some of the seven-fold increase comes from imports, but much of it is the result of improper relabeling of “conventionally”  grown food.

    • Kay

      The whole 18 pages leads me to one conclusion.  Why bother?

    • Tom

      Who are the idiots that wrote this piece?  “…conventional farming which can contaminate soil and water with chemicals and nitrogen.”  Nitrogen is a required nutrient for plants!  One of the reasons you plant alfalfa or clover is that it fixes nitrogen from the air into the soil!  Or how about this “…you can feel good that workers, animals, and the environment were all treated better in the process.”  The animals were treated better by being allowed to have tapeworm or suffer from diseases because they are antibiotic free!  What a crock!  I bet these people don’t hesitate to take antibiotics when THEY are sick.  Another stupidity; “Chemical fertilizers are only so successful in controlling pests before they develop tolerances. Then, new stronger formulas need to be developed, which eventually taps out our soils. “  Fertilizers do not control pests at all, that is not what they are for!  They add nutrients to the soil so plants can grow better and have increased yields.  The second part of that quote about tapping out the soil is just as stupid, plants consume nutrients to create food, does not matter whether they are organic or not.  If you do not add the nutrients back in then your yields will decrease and “tap out” the soil regardless of whether the food produced is organic or not.  Obviously the authors have never even tried to garden, much less farm.  They apparently are just parroting whatever eco-nut lines they here.

      • Jimmy547

        These are very correct statements from Tom, also this article talks about how GMO crops are bad. Technically any organism that has had any human interaction is considered a GMO, your dog, cat, grass, trees basically any not captured in the wild is a GMO crossbreeding/selective breeding dogs is creating a GMO (any animal/organism other than produced by natural selection is a GMO). Finally GMO’s have been produced ever since we evolved past hunting and gathering so if GMO is not natural maybe we should go back 10000 + years and not switch to agricultre. Very good chance you would not exhist right now! This article needs to be removed for its great misdirection, the author should be ashamed for not doing the proper research.

        • growin2

          You are incorrect. You are confusing selective breeding and hybridization (neither of which are considered an issue) with GMO’s. Selective breeding of animals and hybridization simply speeds up and guides a process that could happen in nature. GMO’s could never happen in nature. GMO’s are the product of genes being transferred from one kingdom into another.

          In the case of GMO corn, genetic material was transferred from a type of bacteria (Bt) into the genetic makeup of corn. (This is quite different from applying the same bacteria onto the corn.) They actually changed the genetic makeup of the corn itself. Little research has been done to see if this will have any ill effects on people. Different reports available have stated that cows which are eating GMO feed are showing a higher rate of miscarriage. Other countries have banned this GMO food, but not the US. Most of the corn you purchase in a US store today is GMO corn.

          In another case, a group is attempting to splice genes from spinach into the genetic makeup of pigs. Most of the resulting franken-piglets died at or prior to birth. Last I heard they were still attempting to create this GMO spinach-pig.

          • Nathan Jacobsen

            “GMO’s could never happen in nature. GMO’s are the product of genes being transferred from one kingdom into another.” – The first sentence is wholly incorrect, and the second isn’t necessarily true, since GMOs can also involve transfer between wholly different organisms in the same kingdom, which isn’t necessarily hybridization, back-crossing, or selective breeding.

            Cross-species and cross-kingdom gene transfer happens all the time, via viruses and bacteria mainly. A large portion of our own genes have been absorbed into the genome from viruses. Furthermore, viruses often accidentally carry non-viral genes across organisms, so if you have a virus that infects spinach then goes on to infect corn, it can carry genes from the spinach to the corn. It’s called horizontal gene transfer, and it happens in nature all the time. Since there are few if any diseases that affect both plants and animals, horizontal gene transfer between these kingdoms is rarer, but if you look at how conserved a lot of generic material is — e.g., mitochondrial DNA — you’ll see that it’s highly likely the horizontal gene transfer has occurred between animals and plants in the relatively recent past.

      • Collin Davis

        Nitrogen in the form of nitrates/nitrites are indeed a contaminate for well water used for drinking. Stop acting like an expert when you don’t know what you’re talking about. The well water from my family’s land has nitrate levels above the maximum allowed due to local fertilizer runoff. I just love seeing someone call another person an idiot when they’re entirely ignorant of reality. Think about what you did and maybe learn a little next time.

    • Jrberton

      A Stanford study showed that Organic food isn’t anymore nutritious or tastes better that conventional, but costs much more. Organics are a niche food that cannot feed the world because the crop yield is nowhere near that of conventional food.

      • b murphy

         maybe it would be a good idea to, Study Stanford, and find out why they would give such a False report,have you even looked at the organic crops as opposed to conventional GMO crops

      • AlanAustinSantana

        The same study did, however, reveal that those who eat organic as well as they can in our pathetic nation, do have less pesticide exposure–a more important fact in our multi-toxin exposure society.

      • chris

        nutritionally, they may be the same…..BUT, organic crops are NOT exposed to sewage sludge, pesticides, etc. like non-organic crops are…..

        • chris

          OH…and they are NOT GENETICALLY MODIFIED!!!

          • actionmanrandell

            i love how people like you dogmatically fallow something like organic food with out actually doing your own research if you did you would find out that thousands of peer review studies have debunked the organic food is better lie. if you do not know what peer review means i will give you a lesson. peer review is where thousands of independent scientists review the data in a study to verify its accuracy these scientists have no connection to each other and it would be far to expensive for large corporations to pay them all off. especially since many of these people are over seas and would be expensive to make a meeting. in the world of science if a study is peer reviewed and the peers all agree with the study then that means said study is 100% accurate

        • biochemists_are_sexy

          Actually, they are more exposed to sewage and sludge, because they have to use only ‘natural’ fertilizers. That’s why they are a huge source of foodborne illness, much more so than non-organic foods. They also are able to use some pesticides.

          • thwap

            that is utter hogwash. pure lies.

            • Chad

              Actually that one is true. Crop nutrients must come from somewhere and they use a lot of manure. Sewer is sewer, Sorry to bust your bubble.

            • str8

              heres the kicker your crap is recycled in case you ever wondered where it goes and its seperated from the water and turned into manure which does go into the food.

    • http://profile.yahoo.com/GOTV75G4LYVJFZ2JBOCS3RSQUI Blake

      Would you like Hexane, a byproduct of gasoline refining in your fall off the CLIFF bar? Well that’s what you get with soy protein isolate it’s ALLOWED in our food!

      • Mikayla


    • http://profile.yahoo.com/GOTV75G4LYVJFZ2JBOCS3RSQUI Blake

      There is no such thing as “Natural”there is no certification process any company can call their products “Natural” in the U.S. and they can be full of chemical pesticides