Organic foods are grown and processed differently than regular foods. The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) definition of organic food states that:
Organic food is produced by farmers who emphasize the use of renewable resources and the conservation of soil and water to enhance environmental quality for future generations. Organic meat, poultry, eggs, and dairy products come from animals that are given no antibiotics or growth hormones. That food is produced without using most conventional pesticides; fertilizers are made with synthetic ingredients or sewage sludge; bioengineering; or ionizing radiation.
In this article, Pritish Halder describes those foods are produced through farming practices that only use natural substances. This means avoiding all artificial chemicals, hormones, antibiotics, and GMOs.
What are the standards for organic foods?
Before a product can be labeled “organic,” a Government-approved certifier inspects the farm where the food is grown to make sure the farmer is following all the rules necessary to meet USDA organic standards. Companies that handle or process this type of food before it gets to your local supermarket or restaurant must be certified, too.
What the USDA Organic Seal Means
A 2002 law set in place a national organic foods standard. Foods labeled “USDA Organic” must reach the following standards:
- Produced in a way that protects natural resources
- Use only approved crops and livestock
- Refrain from crops and livestock that use genetic engineering (GMOs)
- Refrain from using ionizing radiation, sewage sludge, and most synthetic pesticides and fertilizers.
Organic Labels—What Do They Mean?
Beyond “USDA Organic,” the US government grades organic foods, giving them one of three labeling categories. These three labeling categories are:
- 100 Percent Organic: These are foods that have only organic-certified ingredients.
- Organic: At least 95% of the ingredients in these foods are organic.
- “Made With” Organic: In these foods, at least 70% of ingredients are made using organic farming practices.
“Natural” vs. “organic”
While you may see labels that assert that food is “natural,” “pesticide-free,” or “hormone-free,” these terms should not be considered synonymous with the term “organic.” The USDA defines organic foods as products that are at least 95% organic according to the standard usage of the term. If manufacturers wish, they may use this seal when marketing their products. Products that contain 100% organic ingredients may be labeled as “100% organic.” Use of the USDA seal is not mandatory, however, so you may not see the seal on all organic products.
Organic food and nutrition content
Organically grown crops may have fewer nitrates and more of certain vitamins, minerals, and antioxidants. Organic dairy products and meat may have more omega-3 fatty acids. However, the evidence is mixed.
Several studies have compared the nutritional content of organic and conventionally grown plants, and most have shown no significant differences in key vitamin and mineral content. Although the differences are small – research has shown that some organic food has:
- lower nitrate levels
- higher vitamin C levels
- higher levels of some minerals (such as phosphorous, magnesium, and iron).
Organically grown crops have more antioxidants and vitamins
Several older studies have found that organic foods generally contain higher levels of antioxidants and certain micronutrients, such as vitamin C, zinc, and iron (4, 5Trusted Source, 6Trusted Source, 7Trusted Source).
Antioxidant levels can be up to 69% higher in these foods (7Trusted Source).
A 2003 study found that organically grown berries and corn contained 58% more antioxidants and up to 52% higher amounts of vitamin C (6Trusted Source).
What’s more, one study reported that replacing regular fruit, vegetables, and cereals with organic versions could provide extra antioxidants in your diet. This was comparable to eating 1–2 extra portions of fruit and vegetables daily (7Trusted Source).
Organic plants do not rely on chemical pesticide sprays to protect themselves. Instead, they produce more of their protective compounds, namely antioxidants.
This may partly explain the higher levels of antioxidants in these plants.
Nitrate levels are generally lower
Organically grown crops have also been shown to have lower levels of nitrate. Studies have shown that nitrate levels are 30% lower in these crops (7Trusted Source, 8).
High nitrate levels are associated with an increased risk of certain types of cancer (9Trusted Source, 10Trusted Source).
They’re also associated with a condition called methemoglobinemia, a disease in infants that affects the body’s ability to carry oxygen (11, 12).
Organic dairy and meat may have a more favorable fatty acid profile
Organic milk and dairy products may contain higher levels of omega-3 fatty acids and slightly higher amounts of iron, vitamin E, and some carotenoids (13Trusted Source, 14Trusted Source, 15).
However, this type of milk may contain less selenium and iodine than non-organic milk. These are two minerals that are essential for health (14Trusted Source).
A review of 67 studies found that organic meat contained higher levels of omega-3 fatty acids and slightly lower levels of saturated fats than conventional meat (16Trusted Source).
A higher intake of omega-3 fatty acids has been associated with many health benefits, including a reduced risk of heart disease.
Insufficient evidence to recommend organic over conventional
However, several other studies found no differences.
While several studies find that organic foods can have significant positive outcomes, others have found insufficient evidence to recommend organic over conventional (17Trusted Source).
An observational study comparing the nutrient intakes of nearly 4,000 adults consuming either organic or conventional vegetables found conflicting results.
Although a slightly higher intake of certain nutrients was seen in the organic group, this was most likely due to higher overall vegetable consumption (18Trusted Source).
A review of 35 studies found some positive outcomes associated with organic food but couldn’t draw any definitive conclusion (19Trusted Source).
Another review of 233 studies found a lack of strong evidence to conclude that organic foods are more nutritious than regular foods (20Trusted Source).
Nevertheless, it is important to remember that these studies vary quite widely in their results. This is because the nutrient content of food depends on many factors, such as soil quality, weather conditions, and when the crops are harvested. The composition of dairy products and meat can be affected by differences in animal genetics and animal breed, what the animals eat, the time of year, and the type of farm. The natural variations in the production and handling of foods make comparisons difficult. That’s why the results of these studies aren’t conclusive.
Fewer chemicals and resistant bacteria
Choosing organic foods may reduce your exposure to toxins, pesticide residues, and antibiotic-resistant bacteria. However, the levels of toxins in regular produce are generally well below the safety limits. Many people choose to buy organic food to avoid artificial chemicals.
Evidence suggests that consuming these foods may reduce your exposure to pesticide residues and antibiotic-resistant bacteria (20Trusted Source).
Pesticide application can artificially select resistant pests. In this diagram, the first generation happens to have an insect with heightened resistance to a pesticide (red). After pesticide application, its descendants represent a larger proportion of the population, because sensitive pests (white) have been selectively killed. After repeated applications, resistant pests may comprise the majority of the population.
One study found that levels of cadmium, an extremely toxic metal, were 48% lower in organic produce. In addition, pesticide residues were four times more likely to be found in non-organic crops (7Trusted Source).
It is important to note that the higher levels of cadmium and pesticide residue in conventionally grown produce were still well below safety limits (21Trusted Source).
However, some experts worry that cadmium can accumulate over time in the body, potentially causing harm. Washing, scrubbing, peeling, and cooking food can reduce these chemicals, although it doesn’t always remove them completely (22, 23Trusted Source).
Nevertheless, evidence suggests that the risk of exposure to pesticide residue in foods is small and unlikely to cause harm (24Trusted Source, 25Trusted Source).
Organic food is a growing industry
The Australian organic food industry is booming. In 2021, the retail value of the organic market was estimated to be at least $2.3 billion. Australia has seen a compound annual growth rate of 13% since 2012, with the number of certified organic operations increasing by 38% since 2011.
Consumer demand for organic food is growing at a rate of 20 to 30% per year. It is estimated that more than 6 out of every 10 Australian households now buy organic foods on occasion. Popular products include fruit and vegetables, beef, non-alcoholic drinks, nuts, and ready-to-eat foods.
Ethics of Organic food
Organic foods promote more humane treatment of animals, as well as providing meat that is free from hormones and antibiotics.
Also, some people worry about the long-term health, economic and environmental consequences of GM foods and choose organic foods in support of an industry that does not use GM techniques.
Better for the environment
Organic foods promote healthier and more sustainable use of natural resources. Modern conventional farming methods include excessive use of chemicals and planting only one crop multiple times (monocropping). This has led to a decline in soil fertility and an increase in salinity and blue-green algae in waterways over many years.
Organic farmers try to minimize damage to the environment by diversifying their crops, using physical weed control, and animal and green manure.
The bottom line
The evidence is mixed on whether organic foods contain more antioxidants and nutrients than conventionally grown food. Consuming organic food may reduce your exposure to artificial chemicals, added hormones, and antibiotic-resistant bacteria. However, it can cost more and may not be accessible to everyone. Additionally, it’s not clear if going organic has additional health benefits. Whether to buy organic is a choice you should make based on your personal preferences. Want to learn more? Contact Pritish Kumar Halder, who has some awesome resources to explore your knowledge.
Composed by: Suma Sarker