Is Buying Organic Really Worth It?
For a lot of people, eating right means eating organic. But does organic always mean better? Let’s take a closer look at what the term “organic” actually means, the principles of organic production and my final thoughts on the subject.
What does "organic" mean?
While most people have some vague understanding of what "organic" means, most lack the details so here is the Coles Notes explanation. The word "organic" refers to the way in which farmers grow and process fruits, vegetables, grains, dairy products and meat. While it varies depending on the exact type of food product, "organic" farming generally prohibits the use of chemical fertilizers and pesticides, synthetic substances, irradiation, sewage sludge and genetically modified organisms. Organic farmers instead use natural fertilizers or pesticides and use crop rotation or mulch to manage weeds. Organic farming practices are also designed to encourage soil and water conservation, reduce pollution and maintain biological diversity so by purchasing organic, you're also reducing your carbon footprint. Animals used to produce organic meat, poultry, eggs and dairy do not take antibiotics or growth hormones.
The general principles of organic production are as follows:
Protect the environment, minimize soil degradation and erosion, decrease pollution, optimize biological productivity and promote a sound state of health.
Maintain long-term soil fertility by optimizing conditions for biological activity within the soil.
Maintain biological diversity within the system.
Recycle materials and resources to the greatest extent possible within the enterprise.
Provide attentive care that promotes the health and meets the behavioural needs of livestock.
Prepare organic products, emphasizing careful processing, and handling methods in order to maintain the organic integrity and vital qualities of the products at all stages of production.
Rely on renewable resources in locally organized agricultural systems.
While the actual organic certification guidelines vary from country to country, the standard requirements for a food to be labeled organic are the following:
avoidance of synthetic chemicals, genetically modified organisms (GMOs), irradiation, and the use of sewage sludge
use of farmland that has been free from prohibited chemical inputs for a number of years (often, three or more)
for livestock, adhering to specific requirements for feed, housing, and breeding
keeping detailed written production and sales records (audit trail)
maintaining strict physical separation of organic products from non-certified products
undergoing periodic on-site inspections
How is organic food labeled?
Every country has its own set of regulations for a product to be certified organic and its own label to be used on organic products. USDA and Canada Organic are the two main labels that you will find on products in North America that are certified organic and share similar guidelines. These labels guarantee that you're getting an organic product that meets strict government standards according to the general principles outlined above. The use of the Canada Organic logo however is voluntary, so not all organic products will use it. To be sure then that a product claiming to be organic is organic, look either for the Canada Organic (or USDA Organic) logo, or check the back of the label to see that the product is "certified by" or "certified organic by" an accredited certification body.
Some of the wording that you might find on packaging and what these "claims" really mean:
"Organic" -- Any product with an organic content of 95% or more can be considered organic and can bear this label. Terms such as "organically grown", "organically raised", "organically produced" or similar are considered the same as "organic" and must meet the same requirements above.
“100 percent organic” -- This claim is not permitted in Canada. A label should instead read "organic" or "100% organic ingredients".
"Certified organic" -- This claim is not permitted in Canada. A label should instead read "certified by X" or "certified organic by X".
“Made with organic ingredients” -- This claim is also not permitted. Products with 95% or more should be labeled "organic". Products with 70-95% organic content must declare the percentage of organic content on their label. Products with less than 70% organic content may only indicate which ingredients are organic in the ingredients list.
Important: Single-ingredient items such as milk or fresh fruit are either 100% organic or not organic at all, they cannot be partially organic. If the single-ingredient item is meat, poultry, eggs or milk and is labeled "organic" then the farm from which it came has met certain organic standards for animal health and welfare. Foods from these farms are also processed without artificial colours, flavours or preservatives. If products are not packaged, such as at a farmers' market or farm store, the certificate from the certifying body should be displayed at the point of sale.
Why buy organic foods?
#1 reason: they are more nutritious than their conventional counterparts. While the research is still in its early stages, more and more studies are finding that organic foods are higher in nutrients than conventionally grown foods. Research shows that organic produce is higher in vitamin C and minerals like calcium, iron, chromium and magnesium. A study published just last July by Newcastle University found that organic crops even have substantially higher levels of antioxidants and lower levels of toxic heavy metals than conventional crops. Remember, antioxidants are key nutrients for disease prevention and anti-aging. Eating organic therefore reduces your toxic load which is the amount of toxicity your body accumulates from internal and external sources. The more you can reduce your toxic load the more your body can focus on rejuvenation and healing rather than constantly removing toxins. By purchasing organic products, you are voting with your dollar and taking a stand against foods that don't meet the general principles outlined above. As demand for organic foods rises so too will the demand for transparency from our food system. Genetically modified foods continue to be sold without a label unless organic. Finally, organic foods simply taste SO MUCH BETTER! You be the judge: do a taste test and compare a fresh organic tomato to a fresh conventional tomato. I'm confident that you'll taste the difference!
Where can I buy organic foods?
Organic foods can be found almost anywhere these days. Most grocery stores will have special organic sections that are clearly labeled. Other places to shop for organic foods are health food stores, farmers' markets, community-supported agriculture (farm shares) and of course, online.
Are all conventional foods genetically modified?
The sad answer to this is "I don't know". Since genetically modified food labeling is not mandatory (yet) in Canada and most states in the US, there is no way of knowing whether or not a food is genetically modified unless it is organic or voluntarily a part of the Non-GMO Project. A general rule of thumb I tell my clients to always purchase the following items organic as they are most often genetically modified: corn, soy, wheat, potatoes, tomatoes, salmon and vegetable oils (sunflower, safflower etc.).
Do all my foods have to be purchased organic?
Organic food is expensive and luckily, not all foods need to be purchased organic. The Environmental Workings Group (EWG) is a wonderful organization that specializes in research and advocacy in the areas of toxic chemicals, agriculture, agricultural subsidies and corporate accountability. Every year the EWG releases a list of foods based on PESTICIDE LOAD. Foods with high pesticide residues (the "Dirty Dozen") should always be purchased organic while the foods with the lowest pesticide residues can be purchased conventional (the "Clean 15"). Foods that make it on the Dirty Dozen list are often foods that have thin skin or no skin at all (like apples or leafy greens) while the Clean 15 are often foods with thick skins where pesticides are less likely to seep through and contaminate the food. Please note: this list isn't about GMOs, only pesticide load. Like mentioned above, I highly recommend corn (and papaya) be purchased ORGANIC as these foods are more likely to be genetically-modified.
MY FINAL THOUGHTS:
My take on organics is this. When it comes to produce, seasonal and local is always my first choice — not only is the food fresher and more nutritious, it is a lot cheaper. The only time I purchase organic is if the food is on the dirty dozen list or if the food is out of season. When it comes to pre-packaged items, I think organic is the best way to go but these foods shouldn’t be the jist of your diet anyway.
I hope this helps!