What Does Organic Mean?
Organic foods have grown in popularity over the past few decades. In fact, sales of organic foods rose to $57.5 billion in the U.S. in 2022.1
Some people think organic foods are healthier, tastier, and safer than their traditional counterparts. But what does organic mean?
Organic is a labeling term that indicates that the food or other agricultural product has been produced through approved methods set and verified by a USDA-accredited certifying agency.1
“Organic products must be produced using agricultural production practices that foster resource cycling, promote ecological balance, maintain and improve soil and water quality, minimize the use of synthetic materials, and conserve biodiversity.”2
What does that really mean?
Approved methods are those foods grown without:
- Artificial chemicals
- Genetically modified organisms (GMOs)
Approved methods for a USDA certified organic farm include:
- Physical, mechanical, and biological farming methods
- Farming methods that support biodiversity and soil health
- Only limited amounts of USDA-approved pesticides that do no harm human or environmental health
Why are there so many different food labels?
You might be surprised to know that there are four labeling categories for organic products, which include “100 Percent Organic”, “Organic”, “Made with Organic__” ingredients, and specific organic ingredient listings.2
“100 Percent Organic” indicates that products must be made up of 100 percent certified organic ingredients. The label must also include the name of the certifying agent and may include the USDA Organic Seal and or the 100% organic claim.2
“Organic” indicates that products and ingredients must contain at least 95% certified organic content except where specified on the National List of Allowed and Prohibited Substances. No more than 5% of the combined total ingredients may contain non-organic content. The label must include the name of the certifying agent and may include the USDA Organic Seal and/or the organic claim.2
“Made with Organic” indicates that a product must contain at least 70% of organically produced ingredients. The USDA organic seal may not be used on these products.2
“Specific Organic Ingredient Listings” indicates that a product contains less than 70% of organically produced ingredients. Organic ingredients may be listed in the ingredients list but may not use the USDA organic seal on these products.2
Are Organic Foods Healthier than Conventional Foods?
There are numerous factors that can affect the nutrient content of produce including geographical location of the farm, local soil characteristics, climatic conditions that can vary by season, maturity at time of harvest, storage, and time to testing after harvest. A meta-analysis found that organically grown crops had higher levels of antioxidants, which can protect you from disease and enhance the immune system, have lower levels of pesticides, and lower concentrations of toxins.4,5,6 The Food and Drug Administration and the Environmental Protection Agency sets standards and monitors the levels of toxic metals, pesticides, and contaminants in all foods.
Organic meats, dairy, and eggs have been shown to have more omega-3 fatty acids than their conventional counterparts.7,8 Omega-3 fatty acids are essential fats the body can’t make, that are integral to cell function and beneficial to heart health. You can also find omega-3s in fish, seafood, nuts, flax seeds, and leafy vegetables.
Why are Organic Foods More Expensive?
Organic foods can be more expensive than conventional foods due to the strict government farming and production standards they must meet. Costs are driven by USDA Organic certification fees, increased labor costs, and small-scale production.
Buying organic vs. conventional is a personal choice. Just because something is organic doesn’t always mean it’s healthier. Read food labels carefully as some organic products may still be high in sugar, salt, fat, or calories. If you are on a budget, think about selecting conventional foods with thicker skins as they tend to have fewer pesticide residues, because the thick skin or peel protects the inner fruit or vegetable. To get the freshest produce buy what’s in season or at your local farmer’s market. If you are still unsure whether to buy organic produce vs. conventional, the important thing is to eat more fruits and vegetables of any kind rather than processed or packaged foods.
1. Organic Trade Association. Market Survey. Available at: https://ota.com/organic-market-overview/organic-industry-survey
2. U.S. Department of Agriculture. About the Organic Standards. Available at: https://www.ams.usda.gov/grades-standards/organic-standards#
3. U.S. Department of Agriculture. About Organic Labeling. Available at: https://www.ams.usda.gov/rules-regulations/organic/labeling
4. Fess TL, Benedito VA. Organic versus Conventional Cropping Sustainability: A Comparative System Analysis. Sustainability. 2018; 10(1):272. https://doi.org/10.3390/su10010272
5. Montgomery DR and Biklé A (2021) Soil Health and Nutrient Density: Beyond Organic vs. Conventional Farming. Front. Sustain. Food Syst. 5:699147. doi: 10.3389/fsufs.2021.699147
6. Barański M, Srednicka-Tober D, Volakakis N, et al. Higher antioxidant and lower cadmium concentrations and lower incidence of pesticide residues in organically grown crops: a systematic literature review and meta-analyses. Br J Nutr. 2014;112(5):794-811. doi:10.1017/S0007114514001366
7. Średnicka-Tober D, Barański M, Seal C, Sanderson R, Benbrook C, Steinshamn H, Gromadzka-Ostrowska J, Rembiałkowska E, Skwarło-Sońta K, Eyre M, Cozzi G, Krogh Larsen M, Jordon T, Niggli U, Sakowski T, Calder PC, Burdge GC, Sotiraki S, Stefanakis A, Yolcu H, Stergiadis S, Chatzidimitriou E, Butler G, Stewart G, Leifert C. Composition differences between organic and conventional meat: a systematic literature review and meta-analysis. Br J Nutr. 2016 Mar 28;115(6):994-1011. doi: 10.1017/S0007114515005073. Epub 2016 Feb 16. PMID: 26878675; PMCID: PMC4838835.
8. Vigar V, Myers S, Oliver C, Arellano J, Robinson S, Leifert C. A Systematic Review of Organic Versus Conventional Food Consumption: Is There a Measurable Benefit on Human Health? Nutrients. 2019 Dec 18;12(1):7. doi: 10.3390/nu12010007. PMID: 31861431; PMCID: PMC7019963.