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

    • Andrew

      I thought skim milk and all fat free dairy products were completely unnatural, processed and full of GMOs, etc?

      • biochemists_are_sexy

        Genetically modified dairy cows? What, they’re genetically modified to give only fat-free milk?

    • Emma

      Only one or two of the “organic” granola bars listed are actually organic…

    • LuJr

      I strongly believe that all food is contaminated to some extent. With chemtrails alone, look what’s happened to bees, birds falling from above, sea mammals washing ashore, etc. This planet has been contaminated… by mans’ greed.

      • biochemists_are_sexy

        I sincerely hope that you’re joking.

        • Hind Marokina

          He’s right. I agree with him. There are very few options left before we destroy the earth. We have already destroyed it if you see at such a unbelievable rate how bees are disappearing, how coral reefs are drying, how air is contaminated, how our meat has been processed, and how our water has been toxified.

        • Plectoh

          What is it about chemtrails that have you confused?

          • biochemists_are_sexy

            Not confused, per se, just completely bewildered that people actually believe such things, without thinking of the massive conspirasy that would be required of the every single human who is or ever has been involved in aviation, engineering, life sciences and physical sciences that would be involved in this being true (not even mentioning the science here, since that tends to go way over people’s heads). But to be honest, I’m not suprised to find conspiracy nuts among that anti-GMO/organic is the only way (and screw all the people that might starve during the conversion) folks. Lots of the anti-GMO rhetoric is rife with scientific illiteracy and has taken several pages from conspiracy theory’s lack of logic and scientific inquiry.

    • Eulie Michelle

      *sigh* Yet ANOTHER article trying to scare people into going organic. I actually read an article that read “Organically grown fruits and vegetables have a higher instance of E. Coli and Salmonella from being grown in manure.” Darned if you do or if you don’t…

      • biochemists_are_sexy

        Organic foods have to use ‘natural’ fertilizers, I.E. manure or other sewage sources of nitrogen, which contains e. Coli and Salmonella, as well as other dangerous pathogens. Whatever you choose, wash your produce. I’m skeptical about pesticides penetrating produce such that a good wash cannot remove it. Naturally, there is no source for this claim (and you know what they say about extraordinary claims)

    • http://www.befreebies.com/ BeFreebies.com

      I loved most of this article except the part about milk from cows given hormones is safe for kids. I don’t appreciate you propagating the disinfo about milk.

      The rBGH given to US dairy cows to increase milk production is *BANNED* in the EU and Canada because it increases IGF-1 in milk — known to cause breast, colon, and prostate cancer.

    • Anonymous

      Organic isn’t necessarily healthier.

      Just because THEY don’t use non-organic pesticides doesn’t mean their crops are free of artificial pesticides. Pesticides can evaporate into the air, appear in rainwater run-off, or leech into the soil and have an effect on neighboring (organic) crops.

      Pesticides are applied to the outside of the food. If it’s something you peel, like bananas and oranges, conventionally grown is just as healthy. So sometimes, paying more for the organic version is just a waste of money.

    • agchem

      This is the absolute worst written article to be published on the the subject.  Especially the discussion of “stronger formulas”.  This does not happen.  If you wish to write a scientific article,  ask someone who actually knows the space.  This is a joke and very misleading.

    • Nathan J

      Organic crops cannot feed the world; their yield is simply not sufficient.  It saddens me that people don’t understand that GMO crops are nothing new, as we’ve been using less targeted methods for a century, and that even organic crops have been significantly modified from their “natural” state.  Do you know how genetic modification can take place with organic strains?  Since we can’t use our biotechnology to make targeted mutations, we irradiate seeds with x-rays, increasing the mutation rate significantly, and hope that a few seeds come out with the properties that we need.  Obviously, this causes all sorts of side effects that are far more unpredictable than using targeted gene insertion and modification (using genes whose functions we already know, by the way).

      But go ahead and eat your organic food, and just remember that it likely contains genes that have never seen the light of day in any organism via natural evolution and whose long-term effects are comparatively unknown compared to pesticides (and although some of the more dangerous natural pesticides, such as nicotine, are banned in the US, who knows what natural pesticides are used in imported organic food. I’d rather trust chemical pesticides that have decades of science backing them up).

      Also remember that if you want the whole world to eat organic, you’ll have to choose which 3 billion people have to die so that there’s enough farmland for the rest of us.  Norman Borlaug (and if you don’t know who that is, shame on you, you shouldn’t be in this conversation) is spinning in his grave listening to this holier-than-thou drivel.

    • Nathan J

      Organic crops cannot feed the world; their yield is simply not sufficient.  It saddens me that people don’t understand that GMO crops are nothing new, as we’ve been using less targeted methods for a century, and that even organic crops have been significantly modified from their “natural” state.  Do you know how genetic modification can take place with organic strains?  Since we can’t use our biotechnology to make targeted mutations, we irradiate seeds with x-rays, increasing the mutation rate significantly, and hope that a few seeds come out with the properties that we need.  Obviously, this causes all sorts of side effects that are far more unpredictable than using targeted gene insertion and modification (using genes whose functions we already know, by the way).

      But go ahead and eat your organic food, and just remember that it likely contains genes that have never seen the light of day in any organism via natural evolution and whose long-term effects are comparatively unknown compared to pesticides (and although some of the more dangerous natural pesticides, such as nicotine, are banned in the US, who knows what natural pesticides are used in imported organic food. I’d rather trust chemical pesticides that have decades of science backing them up).

      Also remember that if you want the whole world to eat organic, you’ll have to choose which 3 billion people have to die so that there’s enough farmland for the rest of us.  Norman Borlaug (and if you don’t know who that is, shame on you, you shouldn’t be in this conversation) is spinning in his grave listening to this holier-than-thou drivel.

    • 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