Things You Must Know Before You Buy Organic
Before you buy organic or natural foods, see what today’s food experts told us about making smart food choices.
By Perri O. Blumberg
“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.
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.
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.
Organic meat isn’t always grass fed or free range.
According to the USDA: “Organic meat, poultry, eggs, and dairy products come from animals that are given no antibiotics or growth hormones,” which helps cut down the levels you ingest. (People who eat conventional meats usually have traces of 12 to 15 different antibiotics in their bloodstream at any time.) However, organic doesn’t mean the animals ate grass and roamed a pasture; it could just mean they’re fed organic corn as opposed to genetically modified corn. Ask questions before you buy.
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.
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.
Know the “Dirty Dozen”? Meet the “Clean 15.”
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.
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.
Sources: Organic Valley; 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.
Source: Reader’s Digest