Have you ever gone to the grocery store and looked at conventionally grown produce and packaged foods and those labeled “organic” and wondered how different they really are?
We take a look at what the term “organic” means, whether conventional or organic food is nutritionally superior or safer, how to make sense of organic food labels and more.
What is “organic?”
The United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) has strict production and labeling rules regarding the use of the term “organic.”
Synthetic fertilizers, irradiation, sewage sludge, prohibited pesticides, genetically modified organisms, antibiotics and growth hormones cannot used in organic products.
Also, “organic operations must demonstrate that they are protecting natural resources, conserving biodiversity and using only approved substances,” according to the USDA’s National Organic Program (NOP) website. The National Organic Program oversees all food and other agricultural products certified to the USDA’s specific organic standards.
According to the NOP website, “most farms and businesses that grow, handle or process organic products must be certified.” Some operations are exempt, including organic farms and businesses that sell less than $5,000 annually. Organic certification is done by USDA-approved certifying agents.
A product carrying the USDA organic seal is certified organic and contains 95 percent or more organic ingredients. Use of the USDA organic seal is voluntary.
Products that are not certified cannot make any organic claim on the front of the package or use the USDA organic seal, according to the USDA. They can list certified organic ingredients as organic, and the percentage of organic ingredients, on the information panel.
The popularity of organic food
The main reason for the increase in popularity of organic food is that it has not been raised with any pesticides or chemicals, which are used in conventional farming, says Craig Chase, with the Leopold Center for Sustainable Agriculture at Iowa State University.
That means conventionally grown food will have an amount of chemical residue, and for some individuals that is not acceptable.
“For a lot of consumers, they don’t want to have any (residue),” says Chase, the Leopold Center’s marketing and food systems initiative program manager. “I don’t think it’s an issue of saying conventional products are unsafe. It’s that they do use some pesticides, so there will be some residue on it.”
Some consumers choose organic because the food is “raised in a sustainable way,” says Chase, who is also the local food and farm program coordinator with Iowa State University Extension and Outreach.
In organic agriculture, farmers use methods such as composting and crop rotation, he says. These practices help with fertilizing the soil, suppressing weeds and preventing diseases and pests. Farmers are allowed to use some materials, but they must be organic, he says.
In Iowa, organically grown food has higher production costs than conventionally grown food because of costs associated with organic certification, materials like livestock feed and labor (hand weeding vs. spraying), Chase says. Also, organic systems typically include more complicated rotations and cover crops.
Because it costs more to produce organic food, consumers will, in general, pay more for organic than conventional.
Many of the organic farms, particularly in Iowa, are small farms, Chase says. And that small-farm feel appeals to people.
“A lot of consumers want to know how their food is grown, and they want to put a face to the farm,” Chase says. “Those small, farm-type businesses allow them to do it. A lot of the small farms, particularly those that grow fruits and vegetables, use organic practices.”
In an effort to know more about their food and where it comes from, more consumers are turning to community-supported agriculture or CSA.
A CSA membership lets consumers invest in a local farm, giving people the opportunity to share in the harvest and personally get to know the farmer growing their food and how he or she is growing it.
A consumer typically receives a weekly box of products for anywhere from 20 to 26 weeks, Chase says. The content of the box depends on what is in season.
Some CSAs may include other items such as meat, dairy, eggs and cheese. Customers will usually pay for the entire cost up front. A CSA membership can cost several hundred dollars.
“Not a lot of CSAs are organically certified, but they do use organic practices,” Chase says.
The certification process requires a lot of reporting and paperwork, says Chase, and some CSAs may be growing 35 to 40 products, each of which would need to be organically certified.
“To a lot of CSA buyers, it’s not the organic certification that’s important; it’s how the product is grown,” Chase says.
When it comes to livestock, the big difference is what animals can eat, Chase says.
Organic livestock must be given 100 percent organic feed and, in the case of ruminant livestock (including cattle, sheep and goats), must graze on certified organic pasture throughout the entire grazing season, for a minimum of 120 days, according to the USDA.
The use of antibiotics, added growth hormones and mammalian or avian byproducts is banned. Animal selection and management practices, along with a few approved drugs, can be used to prevent diseases and parasites, according to the USDA. Only certain medications can be used for treatment.
The USDA says if all the approved methods are unsuccessful, the animal still has to be given appropriate treatment. But if it has been given a prohibited substance, it cannot be sold as organic.
Also, organic livestock must be provided with living conditions that support their health and natural behavior, including year-round access to the outdoors (weather permitting) and room to exercise.
Understanding organic labels
There are several different categories of organic labeling.
Products that are 100 percent organic contain ingredients that are all certified organic. These items can state “100 percent organic” on the front of the package.
Products considered “organic” must be made of at least 95 percent certified organic ingredients. These items can make an organic claim on the front of the package.
Items in either category can carry the USDA organic seal.
Products that have at least 70 percent certified organic content can state that they are “made with organic (listing up to three ingredients or ingredient categories).”
Products with less than 70 percent certified organic content do not need to be certified. Only certified organic ingredients can be listed as organic in the ingredient list.
Items that fall in either of these categories cannot carry the USDA organic seal.
Also, consumers should be aware of “natural” on a label. Natural and organic are not interchangeable terms.
When an item is labeled as natural, it basically means that the food has been prepared as you would in your own kitchen, with no artificial ingredients or preservatives, says Elizabeth Cole, a registered, licensed dietitian at the Altoona Hy-Vee.
Is organic more nutritious?
But are organic foods more nutritious than their conventional counterparts?
So far, no differences in nutritional value have been found between the two, Cole says.
Hy-Vee offers a wide range of organic products in its Health Market, from pasta, snack foods and dairy products, to cereal, oils and frozen foods, says Cole. Organic fruits and vegetables can be found in the produce section.
She says some of the more popular organic items with customers are Bob’s Red Mill products, which include flours, baking products, flaxseed, grains, beans and mixes. Organic milk, yogurt and produce, are also favorites.
Some find that buying all organic can be expensive and purchase a mix of organic and conventional foods. If reducing exposure to pesticide residue is a priority for you, Cole says choose the organic versions of the following produce:
• Bell peppers
• Red raspberries
Organic or conventional, she stresses that including fruits and vegetables in your diet is important.
“To me, I would rather someone eat produce than not eat produce,” she says. “So even if they can’t afford organic, I would say to eat the conventional food.”
When it comes to produce, Cole reminds people it’s important to properly clean items. While using a fruit and vegetable cleaner is the best method to remove dirt and chemicals, she says at the minimum you should rinse and scrub food well.
For those interested in finding out more about organic options, Cole is available to answer questions or take customers on a tour of the Health Market.
There is one myth about organic food that Cole comes across often. Many think that because something is organic, it must be good for you.
That’s not always the case, she cautions. For example, an organic cookie from the Health Market still contains sugar, fat and calories.
“That is something that’s a very common misconception,” Cole says. “A lot of people see ‘organic’ and they think ‘healthy.’ ”