What Does Organic Mean and Is It Really Important?

(photo by Sydney Zentz)

We're all familiar with the term organic. The title bombards our grocery store shelves and tv ads, now forever associated with hemp-wearing hippies and their local farmer's markets. It's cool. And it's good for you. But do any of us really know why? How could a seven letter word make that much of a difference? And what requirements are there for producers to slap the label on their products?
Well, first, let's talk about what organic really is.

What does "organic" really mean?
Organic is a term used to specify produce, meat, and other food products that haven't been produced with or with exposure to synthetic chemicals or fertilizers, pesticides, radiation, or sewage sludge. You've probably seen that little green sticker slapped on a box of cookies or something. 
Now, if you feel like wading through the USDA's egregiously long and boring code of regulations concerning the label "USDA Organic" like I did, be my guest. You can find it here
But if you're less inclined to spend an afternoon doing so, I sifted through it for you. And in section 205.301 you can find the legal definitions as followed:
  • In order to be labeled "100% Organic" the product must contain 100% organic ingredients. 
  • In order to be labeled "Organic" the product must contain at least 95% organic ingredients.
  • And in order to be labeled "Made with organic ___" the product must contain at least 70% organic ingredients. 
Sounds pretty simple and straight, huh? And while there's some room for leeway with labeling, it's a pretty solid standard.
But I also feel it's important to mention here that the terms "all natural", "natural" and "fresh" have no real legal definitions, and therefore have little to no meaning when you see them scrawled across a product. 
Although the FDA has not engaged in rulemaking to establish a formal definition for the term “natural,” we do have a longstanding policy concerning the use of “natural” in human food labeling. The FDA has considered the term “natural” to mean that nothing artificial or synthetic  (including all color additives regardless of source) has been included in, or has been added to, a food that would not normally be expected to be in that food.  However, this policy was not intended to address food production methods, such as the use of pesticides, nor did it explicitly address food processing or manufacturing methods, such as thermal technologies, pasteurization, or irradiation.
So while there is a general consensus surrounding the term "natural", there's no legal guidelines for it. Aka, I'd safely assume any product with the term "natural" or "all natural" is nothing more than a marketing technique with nothing to back it. Ya got it? Okay, moving on.

The importance of organic
So is it really worth it to shell out the extra cash for that organic mango? What benefits are you really getting, and what dangers are you actually avoiding? Consider this: 99% of non-organic produced strawberries contained traces of pesticides and chemicals according to the 2014 and 2015 reports by the USDA. So essentially, it's safe to assume that any conventional strawberry you eat has traces of pesticides along for the ride, even when you rinse them before consuming. But what are those pesticides doing once they actually get in our system? It's hard to say. Considering so many other factors, linking ingested pesticides with health problems isn't simple. But from the nonprofit Environmental Working Group:
Pesticides are designed to kill living organisms. The implications of wide-scale pesticide pollution in Americans’ bodies have not been definitively established. However, recent studies of neurotoxic organophosphate compounds used on some fruits and vegetables have found that children with high exposures were at greater risks of impaired intelligence and neurological problems.
There's also this to consider. Communities in Argentina are suffering seemingly as a direct result of the close and constant exposure to the pesticides. Birth defects have skyrocketed since Monsanto crops have moved in and clouds of glyphosate sit next door to homes and schools. It's definitely a thought-provoking read if you've got the time.

But on the flip side of these chemicals being potentially dangerous for our bodies, organic products are just better (nutritionally speaking)The nutritional quality in organic produce is far superior to it's conventional counterparts. In the simplest of examples, if you ate an organic apple, you're going to consume a higher amounts of nutrients than if you'd eaten a non-organic apple. From this study on the nutrient levels between organic and non-organic produce:
Organic crops contained significantly more vitamin C, iron, magnesium, and phosphorus and significantly less nitrates than conventional crops. There were nonsignificant trends showing less protein but of a better quality and a higher content of nutritionally significant minerals with lower amounts of some heavy metals in organic crops compared to conventional ones.
Gram for gram, you're just not getting the same amount of micronutrients in non-organic foods. And while this should never turn off anyone from eating traditional produce, it's nothing to scoff at.

Foods to buy (and maybe not buy) organic
So eating organic is probably more beneficial for all of us, but one of the most common protests against buying organic is that it's just too darn expensive. And hey, you're not totally wrong. But doing the best you can in the areas that matter most is a practical skill that can be applied here as well. Maybe you've heard of the "Dirty Dozen", the list of 12 fruits and vegetables that have tested highest for pesticide contamination. So, as a general rule, it's a good idea to bite the bullet and get these foods organic.
The Dirty Dozen:
  • strawberries
  • spinach (or any leafy greens)
  • nectarines
  • apples
  • peaches
  • pears
  • cherries
  • grapes
  • celery
  • tomatoes
  • bell peppers
  • poatoes

Okay, that seems like a lot. But don't fret, there's a positive counterpart to the infamous Dirty Dozen. The Clean 15. So while there's a fair amount of produce you should probably be buying organic, there's also a handful that don't always justify buying organic.
The Clean 15:
  • corn 
  • avocados
  • pineapples
  • cabbage
  • onions
  • frozen sweet peas
  • papayas
  • asparagus
  • mangoes
  • eggplant
  • honeydew
  • kiwi
  • canteloupe
  • cauliflower
  • grapefruit

While these lists are super helpful to keep in mind while shopping, just be wary that these lists aren't hard and fast rules. But they are super handy. I'd suggest downloading this free and nifty app to refer to whenever you're shopping! Cause nobody wants to memorize those lists, let's be real.
So while we should strive for a mostly clean, organic diet, the reality is that's not the easiest task. But I'm a big contender in doing what you can. That's why I'm grateful for these lists, the help break it down into real and practical implementation.

3 Reasons to eat organic
Maybe I convinced you that eating organic is a better option for you, or maybe I didn't. All I want to do is provide information, and you can decide to do with it what you will. But just to recap, here's why I believe eating organic is important:

1. It's good for you. It's not only the higher nutrition you receive from eating organic foods, but you're also avoiding all the chemicals and pesticides in conventional products. An organic apple a day keeps the doctor away. Your body will thank you.
2. It's good for the earth. There's no doubt that industrial agriculture is wreaking havoc on our topsoil. And the added pesticides aren't helping anything either. The soil we have is the soil we have, and it's terribly difficult to regenerate it. Why put in all the tie and effort into reversing soil damage when we can steward and take care of the soil we already have?
3. It's good for farmers.  All the chemicals being used in our produce doesn't only affect the bodies of those consuming it, it affects all those working in industrial agriculture. They're constantly being exposed to the dangers of those chemicals as well.

But at the end of the day, ya know what's better than buying organic? Buying local. There's nothing like being able to talk to the people who make your food, being able to ask them questions about the production of the food, being able to see the faces of the farmers who feed us. And since that little USDA Organic sticker isn't easy or cheap to get, most small farmers can't tout their product as "organic", even if it's probably higher quality than that organic-labeled box of knock-off Goldfish on the shelf of your local Whole Foods. So don't get legalistic about it.

Now I could open an entire can of worms here. There's so much more to be said about soil health, the developmental effects of residual pesticides on unborn fetuses, insecticides and bee health, biodiversity and industrial farming, etc. I could drone on. I could lecture someone to sleep. But I'll stop. And since I only covered produce here, I think another article on organic dairy and meat is in order. But for now, I hope this was helpful in understanding some of the basics of organic and how to practically implement this delicious new knowledge in your life.

Eat your veggies, kids,

(photos by Bec Ritchie & Keit Trysh)

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