What is organic food?
Food that is labeled "organic" has been grown or raised without chemical fertilizers, pest killers (pesticides), weed killers (herbicides), hormones, or drugs.
This means that farmers and ranchers who grow organic food:
- Use only natural pest killers, such as plant oils, soap, fungus-eating bacteria, or bugs that eat other bugs.
- Use only natural fertilizers, such as manure or compost.
- Feed their animals only organic food.
- Don't give their animals antibiotics or growth hormones.
- Don't use genetically modified organisms (GMOs).
- Don't use irradiation, which means using X-rays or other types of rays to kill pests, change the way plants grow, or keep vegetables and fruits from spoiling as fast.
Some countries, including the United States, have rules that govern when a farmer or rancher may use the organic label. Before a grower can use that label, a government inspector goes to the farm to make sure that the rules are being followed.
Don't assume that food labeled "natural," "sustainable," "hormone-free," or "free-range" is organic. Look for the organic seal.
What is the organic seal?
The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) has developed labeling rules for organic foods. The USDA organic seal and the word "organic" can be displayed on organic foods. This use is voluntary, so some organic foods may not be labeled as such.
Single-ingredient foods. The word "organic" and the seal may appear on fruits and vegetables and on packages of meat, cartons of milk or eggs, cheese, and other single-ingredient foods that are grown or raised organically.
Multi-ingredient foods. All ingredients or just some of the ingredients in a food may be organic. Look for the following:
- If all ingredients are organic, the seal and "100% organic" are displayed.
- If 95% to 100% of the ingredients are organic, the seal and "organic" are displayed. Any remaining ingredients must consist of approved nonagricultural substances or nonorganically produced agricultural products.
- If at least 70% of the ingredients are organic, the seal is not displayed, but the package may say "made with organic ingredients."
- If less than 70% of the ingredients are organic, no organic claims can be made. But specific organically produced ingredients may be listed on the side panel of the package.
Why does organic food usually cost more?
Food that's grown organically may cost more than conventionally grown foods for many reasons, including these:
- It takes more labor to grow plants and raise animals without the help of chemical fertilizers, pesticides (chemicals that kill pests), and drugs.
- It can cost organic cattle ranchers twice as much to feed their animals, because they must use organic feed.
- Conventional, or nonorganic, farmers and ranchers often get money from the government so that they can sell their food for lower prices. Many organic farms are too small to get this help from the government.
You may be able to save money by shopping around. Sometimes the price of organic products is close to the price of conventional ones, especially when they are in season or on sale.
What do you need to know about organic food?
More and more organic foods are showing up in the produce aisles of local grocery stores. It can be confusing to know when to buy organic versions of your favorite foods. Many people buy organic food because they are worried about the environment. And many people buy organic food to avoid chemicals, especially pesticides, in their food.
You may have these questions about organic food:
- Is it safer? Foods with the organic label have much less pesticide residue compared with most nonorganic foods. Foods grown with pesticides can have small amounts of pesticide left on the food when it gets to the store. Studies have shown that being exposed to large amounts of pesticides can cause harm. But they have not shown that the amounts of pesticides left on most nonorganic foods are enough to cause harm.
- Is it more nutritious? There is not enough evidence to say that organic food is more nutritious than nonorganic food.
- Is it better for children? Children may be more sensitive than adults to pesticides and other chemicals because they are still growing. And they eat more food for their weight than adults do. Products such as organic milk and organic baby food can be good choices for your peace of mind.
- Does it taste better? There is no evidence that organic food tastes better just because it's organic. But organic food is usually fresher, because it doesn't contain preservatives and it needs to be eaten sooner. Fresher food usually tastes better.
- Is it better for the environment? In general, yes. Many organic farmers and ranchers work to conserve water and soil. Pesticides can kill birds and small animals and make it hard for them to reproduce, so using less of these toxic chemicals is good for the environment.
- Is it better for animals? Usually, but conditions vary. For example, organic ranchers must let their cattle graze in open pastures. But some ranchers do that only part of the time, confining the animals to corrals the rest of the time. Most chickens raised on conventional farms live in crowded conditions, so they are given antibiotics to keep them from getting sick. Organic chickens can't be given antibiotics, so they are provided with more living space and access to the outdoors.
Is buying organic the only way to avoid chemicals?
You can avoid pesticides by buying only organic food. Or you could buy organic versions of only the foods you eat most often or of only those foods that have the most pesticides when grown on traditional farms.
The following fruits and vegetables generally have the highest pesticide levels:
- Strawberries and blueberries
- Bell peppers
- Green beans
- Leafy greens such as lettuce, spinach, and kale
When you buy commercially grown produce, take these steps to lower the amount of pesticides on your food:
- Wash raw fruits and vegetables under running water before eating them. Use a scrub brush when it will not bruise the food. Otherwise rub the food by hand to clean it.
- Peel apples, nectarines, peaches, cucumbers, and potatoes, especially before you give them to children.
- Throw away the outer leaves of head lettuce and cabbage.
Remember that eating nonorganic fruits and vegetables, even those with higher pesticide levels, is better than not eating fruits and vegetables at all.
Organic foods are free of chemicals like hormones and antibiotics. But you can also find chemical-free foods that aren't organic. For example, look for:
- Meat and poultry labeled "No antibiotics administered/USDA process certified." This means that the USDA has confirmed that the animals were raised without antibiotics. Labels such as "no antibiotics" or "raised without antibiotics" may be accurate, but they have not been verified by the USDA.
- Milk labeled "rBGH-free" or"rBST-free." This is the producer's promise that it does not contain these artificial hormones.
Another option is to buy from local farms and ranches, whether they're certified organic or not. Many small farms use organic methods but can't afford to become certified. Food from local farms is also likely to be fresher, which means it will taste better and may even cost less. Visit farmers' markets to find locally grown food.
What does GMO mean?
GMO stands for "genetically modified organism," which is a plant or animal whose DNA has been changed in a lab. Another term for this is genetic engineering (GE). Scientists can take genes from one type of organism and put them in another. Many people believe that GMOs make food healthier or last longer. But some people worry that not enough testing has been done to know whether GMOs are harmful.
The most common GMOs in the U.S. food supply are soy, canola, corn, sugar beets, and squash. Most processed foods contain GMOs in one form or another, often as soy flour, soybean or canola oil, or corn syrup.
In most countries, foods that are labeled "organic" aren't supposed to contain any GMOs. But organic foods may come in contact with GMOs even though the farmer or grower follows the rules for organic farming.
You may see food labels that say "no GMO," "non-GMO," or "GMO-free." This is a claim by the maker that the product does not contain any GMOs. There is some debate, though, about how accurate such labels are.