Take a walk down the supermarket aisle and you’ll probably find one word that pops up again and again: organic. Even though the term organic is more visible than ever before, do you really know what is means?

In this post of our Simple Food Terms Explained series, we break down the term organic: what it means, are organic foods healthier, and should you buy organic foods.

What Does it Mean to be Organic?

Forget what you learned in chemistry class. When discussing foods and beverages, organic takes on a different meaning. In this context, organic refers to how things are grown and produced. Organic farming practices aim to conserve soil and water, reduce pollution, promote the well-being of livestock, and support the health and well-being of people.

In the United States, organic labeling, farming, and food production is overseen by the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA). Food products that bear the USDA Certified Organic seal must be grown and processed according to federal guidelines regarding:

Soil Quality: Produce must be grown in soil that has not been treated with prohibited substances for 3 years prior to harvest.

Pest and Weed Control: The use of most synthetic fertilizers and pesticides are prohibited.

Animal Care Practices: All livestock must be raised in pasture-based living conditions that support well-being and natural behavior.

Use of Additives in Food Processing: Livestock must be fed 100% organic feed or forage. They cannot receive antibiotics or hormones.

Understanding Labels

The USDA regulates the labeling of organic food products. There are 4 types of organic labels:

  1.  100% Organic: Individual foods with this label must be raised under USDA approved methods and name the certifying agent. Multi-ingredient and processed foods must use only USDA certified organic products and must name the certifying agent. Foods meeting these criteria can state that the product is 100% organic on the front of the package, and display the USDA Certified Organic seal.
  2.  Organic: To exhibit this label, the product and ingredients must be USDA certified organic, except for ingredients named on the National List of Allowed and Prohibited Substances. However, excepted ingredients on the list must not exceed 5% of the product.
  3.  Made with organic ingredient(s): For a product to announce it is made with an organic ingredient(s), 70% of its ingredients must be USDA certified organic and cannot use any prohibited methods or ingredients.
  4.  Specific organic ingredient(s): If a product contains less than 70% organic ingredients, it cannot use the USDA Certified Organic seal. However, individual organic ingredients can be listed as organic on the ingredient list.

Organic Food vs. Conventionally Grown Food

Are organic foods healthier than conventionally grown food? The jury is still out. There have been conflicting studies on this subject. Some have found that organic foods contain higher amounts of vitamins and minerals, but others have not. However, organic advocates point out that studies show organic foods do contain significantly lower levels of pesticide residue. While common sense would indicate that it should be healthier to consume foods without chemicals, hormones, and antibiotics, the evidence is not yet available.

Beyond health benefits to people, organic growing practices do promote a healthier environment. Fewer fertilizers and pesticides are beneficial to soil and waterways. One downside to organic foods is the cost. Organic farming and production methods are often more expensive and this cost is passed on to consumers.

In an effort to help consumers choose appropriate foods and manage their budget, the Environmental Working Group (EWG) produces a yearly list of produce most likely and least likely to contain prohibited substances and to use prohibited methods.

The Dirty Dozen is exactly that: the top 12 foods that are likely to contain the most prohibited substances and to use prohibited methods. A few offenders: strawberries, spinach, apples and grapes.

The Clean Fifteen is the opposite, with its focus on the top 15 foods that are the least likely to contain prohibited substances or to use prohibited methods. Some of these shining stars are: avocado, cabbage, asparagus, cauliflower, and grapefruit.

So Now What?

The world of organic foods and farming is a new frontier. Time will reveal the benefits (or lack of) to both people and the environment. In the meantime, many people choose to buy organic foods when available and affordable. Reading labels and knowing the meaning of labeling terms can help consumers make informed choices. Also, the EWG lists serve as another guide.

As always, choose foods with less processing. Not only are they less likely to contain undesirable ingredients, they usually have less sodium, sugar, and fat and contain more fiber.