How Organic is Organic Food?


To be labeled “organic,” products must consist of at least 95 percent organically produced ingredients. The remaining ingredients must consist of USDA-approved nonagricultural (non-organic) substances. Photo: Amanda Wills,

The purchase of organic food has become nothing short of a global trend, as consumers aim to spend money on products they feel they can relate to and trust. This means knowing exactly what food is made of, how it is processed and its country of origin.

While millions of shoppers continue to flock to grocery stores and farmers’ markets, investing their faith (and dollars) in the promise of healthy organic foods, the debate surrounding the true value of "organic" has yet to reach a definitive conclusion. The return to a so-called “natural diet” piques shoppers’ interests - enough to generate a global organic market valued at an estimated $48 billion in 2007.

In July 2009, researchers in London claimed that customers only purchase organic food because they believe it is healthier for their bodies. Scientists at the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine, however, were not convinced.

After a review of 162 scientific papers published in the last 50 years, the research team concluded that there was simply no notable difference between reportedly healthier organic food and conventionally processed food products.

"There is currently no evidence to support the selection of organically over conventionally produced foods on the basis of nutritional superiority," says Alan Dangour, one of the report’s authors.

On the other side of the debate, the Soil Association, an international charity whose primary activities involve campaigning for public education on nutrition and health and participates in the certification of organic food in the U.K., disagrees.

In response to the July 2009 report on the lack of additional health benefits in organic food, the Soil Association’s Policy Director Peter Melchett stated in a press release, “We are disappointed in the conclusions the researchers have reached. The review rejected almost all of the existing studies of comparisons between organic and non-organic nutritional differences.”

"Although the researchers say that the differences between organic and non-organic food are not ‘important’, due to the relatively few studies, they report in their analysis that there are higher levels of beneficial nutrients in organic compared to non-organic foods.”

Despite in which camp your opinions lie, the implied power of eating organic still holds sway over shoppers’ decisions.

What does the label mean?

In order to make educated decisions about the benefits of organic food, shoppers must first understand what sets organic products apart from their conventional counterparts and what qualifies as "organic" in the U.S.

“Organic refers to the way agricultural products are grown and processed," says Jennifer Rose, new media manager and staff writer of the Organic Trade Association (OTA). "It includes a system of production, processing, distribution and sales that assures consumers that the products maintain the organic integrity that begins on the farm.”

“This system which is governed by strict government standards,” Rose explains, “requires that products bearing the organic label are made without the use of toxic and persistent pesticides and synthetic nitrogen fertilizers, antibiotics, synthetic hormones, genetic engineering or other excluded practices, sewage, sludge or irradiation.”

Jack Hunter, spokesman for the U.K.-based Soil Association, says, “Certain standards for animal welfare, avoidance of chemicals and harmful food additives form the basis for the trade term ‘organic.’ This is enshrined in European law, but many organizations set their standards above this level, including ours. The Soil Association is considered one of the highest standards in the world, so consumers seeing our distinctive logo can be sure of high standards, policed by our inspectors who visit all levels of the production chain on an annual and unannounced basis.”

According to Hunter, many of the benefits of organic food are even overlooked by consumers who believe that these products are better only in the sense that they contain no chemicals, antibiotics, traces of pesticides or fertilizers.

“Organic is a package of really worthwhile things," he says. "This often makes it hard to understand and is why most people think organic equals no chemicals. Organic is all about producing food in a way that doesn’t harm people or the environment.”

An essential element of sustainable farming

Organic food is tied directly to the concept of sustainable farming, which covers every part of the food production process from the way animals are fed and their living conditions to the types of amendments that can or cannot be added to the soil in which products are grown.

“So where a worrying amount of pigs, chickens and cows can be reared in miserable conditions, grow faster than their bodies can cope with, are fed things they have not evolved to eat and get a liberal dose of drugs, organic farming does not allow such abuses in the name of profit," Hunter says.

Rose shares a similar sentiment on the overall benefits of organic farming and says that in addition to the environmental benefits, which include soil health, carbon sequestration, clean water supplies and the many personal health advantages organic food has to offer, organic farmers are required by law in the U.S. to “provide their animals with access to the outdoors and pasture, quality organic feed and safe, clean living conditions” without the use of antibiotics or synthetic growth hormones.

“Because organic farms are less intensive, they are far better for wildlife, both in terms of diversity and sheer numbers," Hunter says. "Fields growing wheat one year will need to replace the lost nitrogen through manure and growing clover, for example.”

Given the environmental benefits of eating organic, it is no shock either that many consumers find organic food more pleasing to the palate. Nutritionists around the world have also revealed that organic food contains higher levels of several important vitamins and minerals, including vitamin C, calcium, magnesium, iron, and chromium, in addition to cancer-fighting antioxidants and omega-3 fatty acids. According to Hunter, a good example is organic milk, which has on average 68 percent more omega-3 essential fatty acids than conventionally produced milk.

The cost of organic

Despite the progressive move towards organic products around the world, there are still some confusing aspects of organic food, such as why standards vary from country to country and also - from an ecological point of view - whether organic food outweighs the benefits of buying local, conventionally grown food from community farmers.

Rose explains that the difference in organic standards exists simply because the development of these laws originates at the national versus international level.

"Some may be very similar as they may have followed direction from an international body, such as the International Federation of Organic Agriculture Movements (IFOAM)," she says. "OTA is supportive of equivalence or trade agreements with other countries, and there has been some progress on this front, such as the equivalence agreement between the U.S. and Canada signed last year.”

“However, in order to be sold as organic in the U.S., products, regardless of their origin, must meet U.S. standards. Thus, it doesn’t matter where they were grown. They must be certified by USDA-accredited certifying agents or by agencies within their countries that have been recognized by USDA as meeting the requirements of the National Organic Program.”

When asked which is more beneficial, buying local produce from farmers or purchasing organic food from the supermarket, Rose says, “It’s great if you have a personal relationship with a local farmer whose production methods you can trust. It is important to remember, though, that only products bearing the organic label afford government-backed assurance about how they were grown and processed. So, if you want to be sure that what you buy has indeed been grown and processed according to strict production and processing standards, organic is the best choice.”

Hunter, on the other hand, advises consumers to do a little bit of both when grocery shopping.

"Local food is going to be fresher than anything you can buy in the supermarket, organic or not," he says. "Because many nutrients break down with time, local food is often more nutritious, too. But unless it’s organic, it may have been grown with pesticides and on farms that are a disaster for wildlife. If you can afford it, buy local and organic. Often, local is the cheapest way of buying organic. It’s significantly cheaper to get through box schemes than at the supermarket and sometimes even cheaper at a farm shop or farmers’ market.”

Yet another issue that researchers have raised in the past is whether or not the benefits of organic food outweigh the extra costs in shipping or fuel. In terms of fossil fuels, is an organic apple traveling from Washington state to Pennsylvania really worth the extra mileage?

Rose says organic food actually helps to reduce our carbon footprint and combat climate change by preventing organic farmers from using fossil fuel-based fertilizers. She believes that shipping organic products, even from a distance as wide as California to New York, makes no difference since non-organic products are usually shipped the same way.

Hunter, however, sees it differently. “The benefits and pitfalls of flying produce around the world is a complicated one involving third world development, consumer choice and the balancing of competing environmental issues," he says. "Some products can’t be grown in colder climates and need to be transported long distances. This isn’t much of an issue where these are shipped, but are problematic when flying is involved. Some of this is undoubtedly organic."

“Cheap” food

When it comes to organic foods, sentiments and opinions run strong. While researchers such as those at the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine believe that the alleged benefits of organic food are negligible, other organizations are campaigning in countries around the world to promote the consumption of organic produce and meat.

“The basic message is that in the race to make food cheap - which is a good thing - there has been these unintended consequences which mean that really, it’s not that cheap at all," Hunter says. "Not if you consider that so many of us are becoming obese, in large part because of the rubbish many of us are now eating. It’s also not cheap on the animals that suffer or the environment that is trashed.”

Whatever the opinion of these organizations or campaigns, the ultimate choice is still left to the consumer, who must determine whether the extra financial costs of organic food are worth the health benefits so frequently debated by researchers for nearly an entire century.

Read more

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USDA Reports Organic Food Now Mainstream
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  • Tony Wildish

    Personally, my main reason for preferring organic food is the lack of pesticides and other noxious chemicals in them. The fact that organic farming is less damaging to wildlife is also important to me. I don’t know one way or the other about the actual nutrition content, but that’s not a significant argument for me.

    I’ve found that some organic food doesn’t travel as well as the non-organic stuff. Bananas, pineapples and mangoes sometimes arrive in our local organic store unripe, having been picked too early so that they survive the journey. They occasionally go off before they ripen fully, which is a shame.

    Does organic food taste better than non-organic? I think so, but to be fair, I could be biased. I do know one way to get really good-tasting organic food, and that’s to grow it yourself!

  • Carolyn from

    Looking at it from the US perspective, “organic” means something different on paper than to most locovores, at least in more rural communities. I know intellectually that the government won’t back food unless the farm has met the 3 years of requirements, but most of us find the reputation of the farmer offers us more assurance than any certificate hanging on the wall. Also, I have yet to meet a farmer who isn’t respectful of the land. Most of them really do understand they are shooting themselves in the foot if they disrupt the ecosystem. On the other hand, they don’t have the financial resources to get the govt certification, either.

    I think that’s something each person has to determine based on the relationship they have with their produce supplier.

    Great article–thanks for forwarding the cause of organic food just that much more!

  • Angela

    Really? There’s no difference between organic and conventional? The things that make you go…..hmmmmm! Please explain to me then how it is that an Amish community of about 200 that eat organic and do not vaccinate their children do not suffer from things like autism and ADD to name a couple, compared to the modern mainstream of society. There is more and more strong evidence being produced that will counter this claim of organic and conventional foods are the same in health values.

    The health of this country is on a downward slide, now more then ever in our recorded history! Chemically educed meats and vegetables, with out a doubt have a major effect on our health.

    Check this out!

  • russ

    @Angela – Really? You can’t possibly believe what you write! You could not be more incorrect if you tried – even if you tried very hard!

    Organic unfortunately still must use old types of pesticides (yes they are approved and used) and are unable to use newer safer types. Most of what is claimed is simply smoke – not to mention that Rose likes the cushy job!

    At the local open market İ ask the veggie guy what is best and buy that. Everything is labeled organic but you know it is not. Local or from away – not my problem, İ want taste and price. Where the veggie guy gets it is not my problem.

  • Triskelion

    Me thinks the author of this article got lost somewhere between black and white.

    There is no ONEorganic if you live in the USA like i do.
    There’s different levels of organic.

    I think she would have done us more justice if she would have given us the link and let us read on(especially the area where it says North America)

  • Bradford


    I clicked on the link and didn’t see any similarities. What are you arguing? One of the sources used is from the Soil Association, which is based in the U.K. Don’t accuse people of plagiarism if it doesn’t exist.

  • http://WhatsanURL? Harold Bridge

    The only organic product I buy is bananas, simply because they seem to last longer in the fruit basket.

  • Maurizio Maranghi

    You never truly know if something is organic, regardless what the cover says. The farming industry in this country is just not as ethical as they used to be, personally. The only way you will ever know if you are eating something “organic” and pesticide-free is to grow it yourself in the garden. It is what it is.

    – Maurizio Maranghi –

    Reduce, Reuse, Recycle

  • http://HowOrganic Keli

    I personally started eating and feeding my family organic food in order to avoid foods containing pesticides and chemicals.Also Gmo food is not permitted in organic food.If consumers start taking a stand and switching to organic I feel this will show the big corporations that we have a right to healthy wholesome food that is not slowly poisoning us and giving us genetically altered garbage.Although I find that organic is twice the price of processed foods.However I am willing to pay the extra to keep my family healthy.After all its always about the money!!!So I’m going to spend my hard earned money on organic and buy local throughout the season in order to have a healthier family!!!

  • Home Buyer

    In my opinion people may buy organic food because they believe it is healthier, but in my experiences people buy it because it looks trendy and they think it is “cool”

    Maybe I am wrong, but interesting read nonetheless, thanks!