What it Means to be Organic: A HealthCentral Explainer

ABush Editor
  • A new “meta-study” (a review of previously published studies) published in the Annals of Internal Medicine by researchers from Stanford University concludes that despite the widespread perception that organic foods are more nutritious, there really isn’t a nutritional difference between foods produced conventionally and organically. 


    What “organic” really means

    Between 1997 and 2010, sales of organic foods in the U.S. rose from $3.6 billion to $26.7 billion. Organic is clearly a powerful  buzzword. But what does it really mean? As stated in the Atlantic, the term organic “refers only to a particular method of production.” In eating food produced organically, we may not be getting more vitamins or minerals than we would otherwise, but we are avoiding consumption  of  potentially harmful chemicals and other additives. The meta-study found that 38 percent of conventional produce that was tested contained pesticide residues, compared to just 7 percent for organic produce. This number still falls within EPA guidelines, but it’s unclear how these pesticide levels may affect children and pregnant women.

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    [SLIDESHOW: Inside a Nutrition Label]

    What’s the point of organic farming?

    The main consideration  in the debate regarding organic is that it developed  as an environmentally sustainable alternative to conventional farming. The organic movement began in response to concern about the environment, not nutrition. It was a commitment made by farmers to follow certain standards to ensure their farms would continue to be productive into the future.


    The second important aspect to the organic debate has to do with the use of antibiotics in animal feed and the risk that it poses for public health (see superbug). In consuming organic food, we may not be receiving more vitamins and minerals, but we are avoiding  suspect chemicals, hormones, and preservatives.  Lastly, as the Atlantic points out, organic farming can also be viewed as a human rights issue. Think of the farm workers who are in constant contact with potentially lethal chemicals from herbicides and pesticides.


    [READ: What are Superbugs? A HealthCentral Explainer]

    Is there a difference between “organic” and “natural”?

    In short, yes. According to Whole Foods Market’s website, "natural" means only  that the product has undergone minimal processing. Unlike products that are certified organic, natural products have no certification or inspection system. Also, "natural" does not necessarily relate to growing methods or the use of preservatives. To be “certified organic,” a USDA accredited public or private organization has verified that the business meets or exceeds the standards set forth in the USDA Organic Rule. As for organic standards for meat, poultry, and dairy, synthetic growth hormones such as rBGH and antibiotics are prohibited. Also, all animals must be raised in natural living conditions.


    Bottom line: “I’m in the supermarket: Do I buy organic or conventional?”

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    As Michael Pollan, author of The Omnivore’s Dilemma and proponent of both organic and locally produced food, states, “[Buying organic] depends on your values.” If you’re concerned about pesticides, the people growing your food, and where the food is grown, then you should buy organic. Don’t judge organic by results it never claimed to provide. The most beneficial thing you can do is educate yourself about what you put into your body and not take buzzwords or highly publicized studies for face value.



    The Atlantic. (04 Sept. 2012). “Organic Food Isn’t More Nutritious, but That Isn’t the Point.” Retrieved from http://www.theatlantic.com/health/archive/2012/09/organic-food-isnt-more-nutritious-but-that-isnt-the-point/261929/


    KQED News. (04 Sept. 2012). “Michael Pollan Responds to Study Finding 'No Significant Health Benefit' to Organic Food.” Retrieved from http://blogs.kqed.org/newsfix/2012/09/04/michael-pollan-organic-study/


    MedPageToday. (04 Sept. 2012). Organic Foods May Not Be More Nutritious.” Retrieved from http://www.medpagetoday.com/PrimaryCare/DietNutrition/34537


    Whole Foods Market. (04 Sept. 2012). “Organic Food FAQs.” Retrieved from http://www.wholefoodsmarket.com/about-our-products/organic-food/organic-food-faqs#differencebetweenorganic

Published On: September 07, 2012