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  • Writer's pictureAnnissa Furr

What is organic, and why does it matter?

It’s everywhere, right? The term organic has long surpassed buzz word status in America, and the popularity of organic food continues to grow every single year. Many households regularly purchase organic ingredients, and restaurants often include organic options on their menu. But what is organic, and why do so many people choose organic over non-organic food?

Organic labeling

Organic is a labeling term used to certify food products in the United States and across the globe. Unlike the term ‘natural,’ the organic label requires farmers to follow strict guidelines and rules established and authorized by the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA). If a food item is certified and labeled organic, it meets these requirements. The USDA Certified Organic label is the most common, but there are numerous certifying agencies across the world that can certify a product as organic.

For food products to earn the organic certification, the food and farming practices must meet specific standards. The organic certification process is extensive and requires close monitoring and compliance. Overall, the goal of organic farming is to eliminate exposure to synthetic pesticides and other chemicals that could cause human health issues. The requirements for organic certification vary somewhat depending on the food type.

Produce: Organic produce cannot contain any genetically modified material. Organic farmers cannot use synthetic pesticides or fertilizers, and the land must be free of these chemicals for at least three years. Organic crops must be grown without sewage sludge or irradiation, and the crop must enhance the soil and reduce erosion, so organic farming is considered to be much kinder to the Earth.

Meat and dairy: Organic beef, chicken, and dairy farmers also follow specific guidelines and rules. Animals must be fed organic feed and housed in living conditions that mimic their natural environment as closely as possible. They must have access to the outdoors. Animals are not given animal by-products, antibiotics or growth hormones.

Is organic food more healthful than traditionally grown food?

The short story- the jury is still out on this debate, and much of it comes down to personal choice. Regarding to the nutrient content of organic and non-organic foods, there are subtle differences. Some studies have shown a slight increase in antioxidant and vitamin levels in organic food, while other studies have demonstrated little or no difference in these values. Organic beef has consistently been shown to contain higher levels of omega-3 fatty acids. However, the nutritional values are generally less of a concern and reason that people choose organic food.

Organic foods reduce the exposure to dangerous pesticides and other chemicals, which makes them a safer choice. Countless studies indicate the dangers of pesticides on human health including birth defects, ADHD, Alzheimer’s, and many types of cancers. Efforts have been made to make these chemicals safer through the years, but the health risks are still a concern. Many unknowns remain regarding the long term effects of exposure. As a scientist, that is certainly a concern.

And finally, a dose of reality. The term organic doesn’t automatically qualify a product as ‘healthful.’ The chemical content is reduced, but you still can’t eat a bag of organic cookies and call it a nutritional win. The organic label is very popular, and many companies make organic versions of junk food. You still need to keep an eye on the labels. Sorry.

Practical implementations

Let’s face it- most of us don’t have the budget to choose only organic food items. Unless you are independently wealthy or recently won the lottery, you probably have a food budget that won’t accommodate a full change to organic food. With a little knowledge, you can focus on the foods that matter the most, and incorporate organic food into your budget without breaking the bank.

Produce - The Environmental Working Group EWG) produces a super helpful list each year that outlines the dirty dozen (foods shown to have the highest levels of chemicals and pesticides) and the clean fifteen (a list of foods that show the lowest amount of chemical contamination and pesticide residue). If you buy any of the produce items listed on the Dirty Dozen list, try to buy organic if possible.

Meat and dairy - buy organic where it is practical- the more, the better. Meat and dairy tend to contain growth hormones and antibiotics. The term ‘natural’ is commonly used in meat labeling. Natural only indicates that the meat was minimally processed and contains no artificial preservatives. Organic and natural are not synonymous.

The Environmental Working Groups Dirty dozen (Buy organic when possible)











Sweet bell peppers


The Environmental Working Groups Clean 15 (Non-organic options are alright)

Sweet corn





Sweet peas (frozen)





Honeydew melon





Other cost effective ways to reduce exposure to pesticides and other chemicals include shopping locally and shopping at farmers markets. Farmers markets allow you to speak directly to the farmers, and ask questions about their farming practices. If you have a green thumb, you can also try your hand at growing your own garden. Check out local gardening information for your geographic area, and start small. This practice not only allows you complete control over what goes in and on your food- it also teaches children important lessons on the origins of food. Bonus- kids love dirt.

Additional resources:

The Environmental Working Group:

United States Department of Agriculture:

Organic Trade Association:

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