Organic September: Do Organics Live Up to the Hype?

Posted on September 6, 2017 by kerri

Our friends in the UK are celebrating Organic September this month, and you, too, may be wondering if organic foods live up to the hype they’ve been surrounded with that seems to only have amplified in the past four or five years. I remember over a decade ago, my grandma getting into a big organic foods kick, of which I was always skeptical—food is food, right? Personally, the only thing I’ve been convinced of is that some of the best apples I’ve ever eaten were labelled organic… otherwise, I’m not sure I’m sold on the matter!

What are organic foods?

The word organic, in chemistry, really just means something is made of or containing carbon and therefore of “biological origin”—natural. Humans, strawberries, trees, and mud, to this definition, are organic (and many other things). In regard to food, it has taken on another definition, which is “free of chemicals and pesticides”—this definition actually goes back to 1942! [1] Of course foods free of pesticides and chemicals should ultimately be a good thing for our health, is the extra expense of these foods actually worthwhile? And at the end of the day, are organic foods any safer?

Defining organic.

The United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) is the governing body overseeing food production and labelling and related regulations. According to the USDA, here’s how organic is defined:

  • Farming is “to the greatest extent possible” done via natural approved substances to enhance crop growth (or none at all) and physical, mechanical or “biological” farming methods. [2] This might be translated to mean more labour or hard work by the farmer, and less enhancement by chemicals and fertilizers.
  • Soil crops are grown in must be free of prohibited substances for three years prior to growth [2]. See more about prohibited and allowed substances for organic certified foods below. Among the most notable of this list is fertilizers and pesticides, which are not used in the soil or on crops that are marketed as organic—in the cases where these products must be used, they must have evidence that the chemicals or substances used do not harm human health. [2]
  • Animals raised for organic meat products must be raised in a natural-like living environment, and be fed a 100% organic diet. They are to live naturally and not be given antibiotics or hormones. [2]
  • Genetically modified organisms (GMOs) are not used in organic foods.
  • Partially organic foods must be 70% comprised of organic ingredients to have a USDA designation of being organic, but will not be able to bear the USDA certification seal. [2]

As this is a very general overview of what makes a food “organic”, or certified organic, it’s of course far too techncal to list the substances that are allowed and prohibited in organic products under US federal law. That list can be found here.

Are there benefits to organic foods?

Dietitians of Canada states that some organically grown crops (fruits and vegetables) may be higher in vitamin C and phosphorous, but lower in nitrogen and protein. In meats, milk, eggs, and dairy products, nutrient levels may be slightly higher than non-organic equivalents. However, these differences are very small, and “have not been found to benefit nutrition or overall health,” and better quality evidence and research is needed to affirm this claim. [3]

Both the USDA and Health Canada regulate food so that all food is equally safe to eat, regardless of if it is organic or not. [3] Dietitans of Canada states that to ensure food is safe, organic or not, preparation is key—storage temperatures of meat, poultry, milk and eggs is extremely important, and foods should be kept separate before cooking; vegetables and fruits, no matter the label, should be rinsed thoroughly under cold water to remove any residues of pesticides—that’s how simple it is! [3]

The most clear-cut reason to choose organic foods is for public health: as antibiotics cannot be used in organic livestock, this cuts back on human antibiotic resistance and could positively impact public health via maintaining ability to control diseases and infections  [4] According to Huffington Post Canada, choosing organic meat may be the one area that it may be worthwhile to buy organic for this reason. [4]

Should you choose organic?

Personally, I’m maintaining my indifference to organics. As a vegetarian, antibiotic use in livestock is not of concern to me—and in Canada, all milk and dairy products are free of antibiotics, hormones and steroids [5]. One of the most important things is to know where your food is coming from [4] so you can make educated decisions on your food based on how it’s made—supporting local farmers helps our economy, environment, and our health, and can also help your wallet—local, organic foods are often less expensive than those shipped in over long distances [4]. Many local farmers may opt not to use chemicals, as well, and small farms often treat their animals better and have better quality products than large producers.

There are recommendations that perhaps children, pregnant women and people with compromised immune systems may fare better on an organic diet [4]—however, unless your doctor has specifically mentioned it, or if you’ve asked and they’ve said it’s a good idea—this may be unnecessary, and left to a matter of personal choice. As well, it may be recommended to prioritize foods you eat regularly with organic alternatives, as sporadic exposure to potentially harmful substances is generally considered less harmful than repeated exposure. [4] For instance, if your family drinks milk by the gallon on a daily basis, but only eats chicken once a week, it would be wise to prioritize organic milk over organic or antibiotic-free poultry. [4]

Just like there are factors around the importance of wearing a medical ID bracelet, there are factors that influence whether organic food is best for you, too. Talking to your doctor on both fronts is the best way to make an educated choice!

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