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21 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.

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“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. Learn the signs you’re eating too many food additives.

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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. Here are some smart ways to eat healthy on a budget.

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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.

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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. It could also hurt your fertility—here’s why.

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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. Here are some more good things that happen once you stop eating red meat.

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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.)

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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. These are the healthiest foods you can buy at the grocery store.

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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.

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istock/Vladimir Arndt

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. These facts about seafood will change the way you eat fish.

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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.

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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. Here are some delicious spring superfoods you need in your diet.

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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.) This is the best way to wash pesticides off your produce.

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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! Learn which foods are still junk food even if they’re organic.

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“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.

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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.

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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.

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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. This is the (gross) truth about how many insects are in your food.

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“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. Here are some “healthy” food habits that you should actually avoid.

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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. Here’s how to decipher the most confusing words on food labels.

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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.

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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! Check out this infographic showing the foods with the most pesticides that you should avoid.