Is Organic Food Better?

Many people wonder if the extra cost of organic food is really worth it.  Today's post will answer the following questions:  Is organic food better?  Is it really pesticide-free?  Is organic food more nutritious? 

Is organic food better?
In the USA:
  • Products labeled “100% Organic” must contain only organically produced ingredients.
  • Products labeled as “USDA organic” must contain at least 95 percent organic ingredients.
  • Skip the label “Made with Organic Ingredients” which can contain anywhere between 70 to 95 percent organic ingredients.

The USDA organic seal verifies that organic crops are free from irradiation, sewage sludge, synthetic fertilizers, prohibited pesticides, and that genetically modified organisms were not used.

When it comes to livestock, the USDA organic seal verifies that producers met animal health and welfare standards, did not use antibiotics or growth hormones, used 100% organic feed, and provided animals with access to the outdoors. For more on labeling in the US see here.

Is organic food better?In Canada, products must be at least 95 per cent organic to be labelled as “organic” or bear the “organic” logo. For more on Canadian labeling see here.

This means the product is free from :
  • All materials and products produced from genetic engineering.
  • Synthetic pesticides, wood preservatives or other prohibited pesticides.
  • Fertilizer or composted plant and animal material that contains a prohibited substance.
  • Sewage sludge, in any form, used as a soil amendment.
  • Synthetic growth regulators.
  • Synthetic allopathic veterinary drugs, including antibiotics and prohibited parasiticides.
  • Synthetic processing substances, aids and ingredients, and food additives and processing aids including prohibited sulphates, nitrates and nitrites.
  • Ionizing radiation and forms of irradiation on products destined for food.
  • Equipment, packaging materials and storage containers or bins that contain a synthetic fungicide, preservative or fumigant.
  • Cloned farm animals and their descendants.

Is organic food really pesticide-free?

Several US studies have found traces of synthetic pesticides on as much as 25 percent of organic foods. The Canadian Food Inspection Agency found that 10 percent of all Canadian produce, including organic, had pesticide residue.

According to a 2011 CBC News article (click here to read the full article):
  • “Records released to CBC News by the Canadian Food Inspection Agency show 23.6 per cent of the 178 organic apples tested in 2009 and 2010 contained pesticide residue.”
  • “data showed that the organic apples that were found to have pesticide residue contained an average of 0.03 parts per million (ppm) of the fungicide thiabendazole. Conventional apples contain an average of 0.4 ppm”
  • “Matthew Holmes, executive director of the Canada Organic Trade Association, said pesticide contamination is likely occurring after harvest, largely during packing and processing.”
While it might be disappointing that organic produce still contains some pesticide residue, it’s only natural that organic farms will struggle with pesticide drift from nearby conventional farmers. Personally, I’d rather consume 0.03 ppm’s of fungicide with each apple I eat rather than 0.4 ppm’s. To me, it’s all about repeated exposure over time.

Also keep in mind that organic does not mean bacteria-free. I always wash my produce with a mixture of one parts vinegar to 2-3 parts water. I then give most produce a good scrub or give delicate produce a 5-10 minute soak. Rinse and dry. (For more on washing produce see here)

Is organic food more nutritious?

In September of 2012,  a study by Stanford University, considered the most comprehensive to date, concluded that: “There isn’t much difference between organic and conventional foods, if you’re an adult and making a decision based solely on your health.”

Headlines and talk shows screamed that organic food is no better than conventional foods and that buying organic turns out to be a waste of money. But, what did this study truly reveal?

For their study, researchers analyzed a bunch of previous studies done on organic and conventional foods. This included 17 studies done on populations consuming organic and conventional diets, and 223 studies comparing either the nutrient levels or the contamination levels of organic and conventional products like fruits, vegetables, grains, meats, milk, poultry, and eggs.

Here’s my beef with this. There were no long-term studies included on people consuming organic versus conventionally produced food; studies ranged from two days to two years. Typically, people who eat organic do so for their long-term health.

When it comes to nutrients, the Stanford study concluded that there were no consistent differences in the vitamin content of organic products, and only one nutrient, phosphorus, was significantly higher in organic versus conventionally grown produce. There is some evidence that organic milk may contain significantly higher levels of omega-3 fatty acids. But basically researchers were unable to identify any specific fruits or vegetables for which organic appeared to be “healthier”.

However, researchers did find that:

  • Organic produce had a 30 percent lower risk of pesticide contamination than conventional fruits and vegetables.
  • Two studies of children consuming organic and conventional diets did find lower levels of pesticide residues in the urine of children on organic diets.
  • Additionally, organic chicken and pork appeared to reduce exposure to antibiotic-resistant bacteria.
Um…pesticide residue in my developing child’s urine is a HUGE deal to me. Personally, I think this study just confirmed the benefits of organic food. Another very important reason to choose organic is to avoid genetically modified foods.  For more on this please see here.

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