The growth of the organic food market has been steadily increasing over the last two decades. According to the Organic Trade Association, sales of organic food and beverages have grown from $1 billion in 1990 to $26.7 billion in 2010. Among all organic food sold last year, the highest sales growth was organic fruits and vegetables, up 11.8 percent from the previous year. While the demand for organic food continues to increase, many individuals wonder if choosing organic is indeed better for their health, environment, and economy compared to choosing conventional—particularly as organic food often carries a higher price tag.
Organic Food Defined
In 2002, the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) established an organic certification program to help regulate how organically-labeled food would be grown and processed. Under the USDA’s National Organic Program (NOP), organic food must be grown and processed using farming methods that recycle resources and promote biodiversity. The USDA defines the term organic stating: “Organic crops are raised without using most conventional pesticides, petroleum-based fertilizers, or sewage sludge-based fertilizers. Animals raised on an organic operation must be fed organic feed and given access to the outdoors. They are given no antibiotics or growth hormones. The NOP regulations prohibit the use of genetic engineering, ionizing radiation, and sewage sludge in organic production and handling.”
When it comes to packaged foods, products labeled organic must contain at least 95 percent organic ingredients, while those labeled 100 percent organic must contain only organically-produced ingredients. Food labels that state “made with organic ingredients” must contain at least 70 percent organic ingredients.
Benefits of Choosing Organic Food
Much conflict exists over whether or not organic food is better for our bodies compared to conventional food. When it comes to packaged foods, an organic label helps ensure that products do not contain artificial colors, flavors, preservatives, and additives—ingredients our bodies can certainly do without. Research has also shown that organically-grown whole foods like fruits and vegetables contain higher levels of certain vitamins and minerals including vitamin C, iron, magnesium, and phosphorous. However, researchers cannot seem to agree whether the nutrient differences between organically- or conventionally-grown foods are significant and if those increases translate into measurable health benefits. For now, it is up to the consumer to decide.
One benefit that is clear when it comes to choosing organic is that the more organic food we eat in place of conventional food, the less toxins and toxic residues we ingest. Researchers have found that even low-level exposure to pesticides can affect the nervous system leading to neurological and behavioral problems. Toxins used in farming accumulate in our soil, water, and bodies. Organically-grown food has fewer pesticides and lower pesticide residues than conventionally-grown food. While organic foods may not be pesticide free—as many residues are found due to contamination from spraying on nearby farms—choosing organic food will certainly reduce our intake of harmful toxins.
Organic Food vs. Local Food
The question of choosing local or organic food is a common one. What is most important when it comes to the food we eat? Is local most important, even if the food was raised using conventional practices? Or do we choose organic, even if that means we are buying food that was produced across the globe?
When we purchase food from a local farm, farmers market, or community supported agriculture (CSA), we have the opportunity to connect with local growers, many of whom are certified organic or implement organic farming practices. When we purchase food from the farmers market, we also have the opportunity to support our local farmers and our local economy; in fact, the farmer takes home about 95 percent of what we pay at the farmers market compared to only 5-15 percent at the supermarket.
While supermarkets tend to have few local food options, many have expanded their organic food selections due to high demand. Every time an item we purchase from the supermarket, we cast a vote for the food we want to see on store shelves. As more of us choose organic and local options at our supermarket, the more organic and local food will be available to the consumer.
Tips for Choosing Organic Food
Organic food is a great choice for our health and the health of the environment. The following tips can help you build your organic food pantry at home:
1. Find a farm, farmers market, or join a CSA
Purchasing food that is both local and organic is ideal. Ask friends, family members, and co-workers for referrals to green markets or CSAs in your area. You can also search Local Harvest to find local—and organic—food near you.
2. Ask Questions
Whether you are buying your food directly from the farmer or at your supermarket, do not be afraid to ask questions. Inquiring about whether products are certified organic, grown using organic methods, or produced locally shows farmers and store managers that these issues are important to you.
3. Read food labels
When seeking out organic food, read food labels. Packaged foods are often clearly marked with a certified organic seal. Fruits and vegetables typically contain biodegradable stickers that contain a product look up (PLU) code to help identify how the food was produced. Organic produce has a 5-digit code that begins with a 9, conventional produce has a 4-digit code that begins with a 3 or 4, and genetically modified produce has a 5-digit code that begins with an 8.
4. Purchase organic food within your budget
Many individuals are working with limited food budgets. Buying food in season, buying in bulk, and splitting shares in your local CSA are all ways to buy quality organic food on a budget. In some cases, you may be able to save a few dollars by purchasing a mix of organic and conventional produce. The Environmental Working Group issues an annual Shoppers Guide to Pesticides in Produce. ™ The list is comprised of both the top 15 least contaminated and 12 most contaminated foods to help guide you in choosing between organic and conventional.
5. Find balance
While seeking out and purchasing organic and local food may sound ideal, it may not be practical for every person in every location. Some individuals simply do not have access to farmers markets or supermarkets that offer many organic options. Do not let that be a deterrent to eating more fruits and vegetables. Consuming more plant-based foods overall—organic or not—benefits everyone’s health. Simply do the best you can and buy the freshest and best quality fruits and vegetables you can afford. (And don’t be afraid to keep asking store managers for more local and organic food!)