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
  • Loading
    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.


    Want to stay smart and healthy?

    Get our weekly Health Reads newsletter

    Sending Message
    how we use your e-mail

    Your Comments

    • nzchicago

      Very interesting that everyone, rich or poor, ate organic food prior to WWII, and now only the richest can afford it.

      I think that when food became cheaper, we got used to spending that extra money on other things (mostly junk that we could do without) and now we just couldn’t dream up giving it up for more expensive food. Once you get used to things, there is no going back.

      Or, possibly market forces account for it: when people had more disposable income because of cheaper food, other prices simply went up to compensate. What about housing or healthcare or transportation? The housing market is extremely sensitive to market forces. If richer people move into an area and start buying, house prices just shoot up. It would be interesting to compare what proportions of our modern incomes are spent on various things, to what people spent a hundred years ago. I’ll bet as food has gone down, other things have gone up.

    • wildcat

      Organic prices are too high which is why a lot of ppl who would buy them don’t. Our neighbors have an organic farm; $6.00 for a dozen eggs.

    • WZimmermann

      When you support small organic farmers you’re supporting local families and the hard work of a very noble class of people-farmers. Real farmers.

      • biochemists_are_sexy

        This is also true of non-organic farmers that are local. Organic farmers are not the only ‘real’ farmers.

      • biochemists_are_sexy

        I am all for supporting local farmers and local food, but I don’t see why that should be limited to only organic food. In places where there aren’t a lot of organic farmers, local farmers are actually hurt by the demand for organic food, as they will buy stuff that is organic from another country rather than something that is conventionally grown across the street from them.

    • Bill

      Organic food totally change my life. I can’t tell you how much I appreciate people who support organic food.

      • biochemists_are_sexy

        Yes, so much better than inorganic food, being all non-polar, often forming hydrogen bonds and whatnot (chemistry joke). Seriously though, Penn and Teller did an episode of B*llsh*t about organic food, cut a banana in half and told people at a market that sells a lot of organic food (the name still gets me, is there ‘inorganic food’?) that one half was organic and the other was not, and asked them to compare the two. It was truly hilarious to watch all these people rip on the one half of the banana that they thought was not organic, and praise the other half as ‘more-banana-y’ among other things. BTW if this one gets through, I’ll be surprised. A lot of my comments are not getting past the moderators. Hint: disagreeing with the article on factual grounds is NOT grounds for not approving comments.

        • suttonpl

          Scientists, you do realize you are trying to fight a religious battle with actual science. Such battles take years with many casualties. Good grief they almost hung Galileo over it. For those wondering, eat plenty of fruits and vegetables no matter what the source. Always everything in moderation. Obesity probably is a greater factor in cancer.

          Since plants produce their own pesticidal compounds that arguably are more dangerous than the man-made ones that are actually screened for dangerous properties and if found never make it to the field.

          Organics, if you say those are natural and we have been eating them forever; well consider how many generations of Swedes have eaten squash.

        • Serai 1

          What a stupid, shallow stunt. It’s so typical of P&T to think that people eat organic food only for the taste. They’re hacks who don’t know what they’re doing half the time. Stick to the magic tricks.

          • biochemists_are_sexy

            I can’t say I agree with all of what they do, but this one was very telling of how people are duped into paying way more for something that they really CAN’T taste the difference in. Same with the bottled water episode. What they do is illusion, so I think they do have expertise at exposing mass delusions. BTW what I wrote above should say NOT forming hydrogen bonds (when it comes to inorganic molecules) instead of ‘often forming hydrogen bonds’.

    • Bill

      This is propaganda. Ignore it.

    • UCDavisNerd

      Some of the most common chemicals used on crops are already “natural” ie: sulfur, copper. The vast majority of “organic” push is marketing, not concern for improving food safety.
      GMOs have been scientifically proven to have no negative effects on food in terms of consumption (yes, if you are an informed scientist, it is at the point of scientific
      acceptance and most studies to the contrary have been debunked). That’s not to say there isn’t major issue with corporations charging farmers ridiculous prices for superior seeds. However, the issue of GMO safety for consumption needs to be separated from the issue of pesticides.

    • UCDavisNerd

      Wow, organic crops are not less “buggy”. That’s a load a horse pucky.

    • biochemists_are_sexy

      Less than 1% of the food grown in the US is organic, yet this can magically feed everyone, as said in #5: “everyone can eat [and also afford?] an organic diet”? I’m guessing the reason this author isn’t writing scientific journals (that show
      data that disproves most of the sourceless ‘facts’ here) is they weren’t
      able to get through the college math requirements to be an actual

    • Lizz

      Number 4 is ridiculous. Even low level amounts of pesticides can harm babies and fetuses, right? So DON’T FEED THEM “ORGANIC FOOD.” Most organic food still uses conventional farming methods. Don’t be silly.

    • Jacob

      this article has so many false facts

      • biochemists_are_sexy

        aka: lies.