In the past few years, there has been a lot of noise around eating organic and non-GMO foods. Do you know what it all means? Is it healthier and more nutritious? Is it worth the extra cost?
Let’s start with the basics. What is organic?
Organic crops must be grown in safe soil, have no modifications, and must remain separate from conventional products. Farmers are not allowed to use synthetic pesticides, bioengineered genes (genetically modified organisms, or GMOs), petroleum-based fertilizers, and sewage sludge-based fertilizers. Foods are grown using natural fertilizers such as compost and manure and weeds and insects are controlled using natural, chemical free methods.
Organic livestock must have access to the outdoors and be given organic feed. They may not be given antibiotics, growth hormones, or any animal-by-products. Livestock and milking cows must graze on pasture for at least four months a year, while chickens must have freedom of movement, fresh air, direct sunlight and access to the outside.
You will know if a food is organic or partly organic if it has the following labeling. Most organic foods do not contain GMO’s, however each classification has its own rules regarding GMO’s:
- 100% Organic – Foods that are completely organic or made with 100% organic ingredients may display the USDA seal. All ingredients must be non-GMO.
- Organic – Foods that contain at least 95% organic ingredients may display the USDA seal. The 5% remaining ingredients must consist of substances approved on the USDA’s National List. GMOs are NOT on this list, so USDA Organic products are also usually GMO-free.
- Made with organic ingredients – Foods that contain at least 70% organic ingredients will not display the USDA seal but may list specific organic ingredients on the front of the package. The remaining non-organic ingredients are produced without prohibited practices, including genetic engineering.
- Contains organic ingredients – Foods that contain less than 70% organic ingredients will not display the USDA seal but may list specific organic ingredients on the information panel of the package.
With less than 100% organic foods, it can be said that they are usually GMO-free. However, there are some loopholes and issues of cross-contamination that we won’t go into here that mean it may be possible that GMO’s were a part of the growing process of these crops. Also, it is important to remember is that “natural” does not equal organic. Natural has no real definition in food labeling regulations.
Why are organic foods good for you?
- Organic foods contain very few pesticides which can harm your health
- Organic food has been shown in some studies to contain higher amounts of nutrients and antioxidants which may be related to the soil fertility
- Organic food is better for the environment – less soil, air and water pollution which harms not only humans, but also birds, bees and animals
- Organic animal products do not contain growth hormones and antibiotics. Consuming antibiotics in animals contributes to antibiotic resistant strains of bacteria that are then harder to cure.
If you can’t buy a fruit or vegetable that is organic, rinsing reduces but does not eliminate pesticides. Peeling sometimes helps, but valuable nutrients often go down the drain with the skin. The best approach: eat a varied diet, wash and scrub all produce thoroughly, and buy organic when possible.
The EWG (Environmental Working Group) has a handy list of the most important and less important fruits and vegetables to buy organic. Those that typically use the highest pesticide levels during the growing process are most important to buy organic, and those that use the lowest levels are less important to buy organic.
Some interesting facts about GMOs:
- More GMO products are found in the US than Europe. In addition, GMO products in Europe are labeled by law.
- More than 95% of food-producing animals in the US consume GMO feed.
- More than 90% of soybeans grown in the US are genetically modified.
Although there is no scientific evidence proving that consuming GMO food is harmful, there are lots of unanswered questions. For instance, there is some evidence that Glyphosate, an herbicide called Roundup, can be harmful. Farmers spray their crops with this herbicide to control weeds and use soy and corn crops that have been genetically modified to survive the Roundup treatment. Whereas the genetic modification to breed a larger or sweeter apple may not cause harm.
One of the best ways to eat healthy foods is to buy them at a local farmer’s market. You can ask the farmers how they grow the foods, what type of seeds they use, and even if their crops are not “certified organic” if they use pesticides. Organic certification is expensive and not all small farmers bother to get this even if they do not use herbicides and pesticides in growing. Also, your carbon footprint is smaller if you eat from local sources rather than from organic sources thousands of miles away. Buy organic when possible, wash and rinse your produce well. If you buy what is in season, the cost is usually lower and produce is fresher.