Banner Health Services  

What does "organic'' really mean?


Linda Schaeffer is a registered dietitian with Banner Estrella Medical Center.

Question: What exactly does it mean if a food is labeled as “organic”? 

Answer: According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), organic farming became one of the fastest growing segments of U.S. agriculture during the 1990s. Officially, Congress passed the Organic Foods Production Act of 1990 to establish national standards for organically produced commodities. These rules were updated most recently in 2002 and require all but the smallest organic growers to be certified by a state or private agency using the national standards administered by USDA’s National Organic Program.

As defined by the USDA, the term “organic” indicates how the food is grown, raised or produced. Organic food producers avoid the use of chemical fertilizers and pesticides by controlling pests through natural methods such as crop rotation, hand cultivation, and the encouragement of beneficial predators and microorganisms. In addition, organic foods must be produced without ionizing radiation or food additives.

Organic farmers who raise animals are prohibited from using antibiotics as growth stimulants and growth hormones, but are permitted to use the antibiotics to counteract infections. Fertilizer usage is also defined so organic farmers can not use sewage sludge or artificial fertilizers.

Producers of organic foods argue that their foods are “better” because they have lower levels of pesticide residues than conventional foods and their animals are not injected with hormones. Evidence does show that conventional foods contain some pesticide residues, but the potential health effects are subject to debate. To best protect consumers, the Food and Drug Administration conducts frequent “market basket” studies that analyze fruits and vegetables for contaminants. In addition, all pesticides are subject to rigorous testing and studies before the Environmental Protection Agency approves them.

The jury is still out on the use of growth hormones in animals and its supposed harmful effects on human beings. The USDA continues to maintain quality and assurance of all beef and poultry production regardless of how the animal is raised, so choosing your meat based on an “organic” label just means that you are choosing how your dinner was raised, not how much vitamins, protein or minerals it contains.

Are organic foods more nutritious? The answer is no. The nutritional value in vegetables and fruits is not determined by how they are grown, but by heredity. Organic chicken eggs still contain the same amount of protein and vitamins as conventionally produced eggs. Do organic foods taste better? That would be for you to judge. Research studies conclude that there is no significant difference in appearance, flavor or texture between organic or conventionally grown samples.

One major difference between organic foods and conventional foods is the cost. Organic foods typically cost between 10 to 40 percent more than conventionally produced foods. When purchasing, consumers should read the labels carefully and look for the USDA official “organic” seal. This ensures that products meet the national standards. Being an informed consumer is still the best buying strategy for any product on the market today.

Page Last Modified: 02/22/2010
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