What is Organic Food?
And Is Organic Better or Just a Fad?
Growing up, we learned about the food pyramid, the various food groups, and the evils of junk food. Nothing was too complicated and all were fairly easy to understand. Unfortunately today, it’s not that simple anymore. Gone are the days when you can just go to the market, buy the freshest ingredients you need for a home cooked meal, and be sure that everything that you’re getting is good for your body. In between checking for the goods’ physical defects, there are nutrition facts that must be read, dietary claims to be understood, and ingredient lists to watch out for. In the last decade, there’s even a new addition – the organic certification.
But Why? Is Organic Better for You?
To satisfy the demand for bigger and better yields, mass producers have resorted to pesticides, genetic modification, and the use of other chemicals. Our regular meat supply is no different. Aside from getting exposed to pesticide residues, animals are given antibiotics meant to control diseases that typically occur among confined animals. Factory farm animals are also subjected to cruelty and torturous conditions. These practices aim to maximize output while minimizing cost, effort and time.
The alarming market condition plus the detrimental environmental effects of conventional farming and animal raising are the reasons that ignited the organic movement. In the US, it started as early as the 1940’s but wasn’t officially centralized and adopted until the Congress passed the Organic Foods Production Act (OFPA) in 1990.
Since the USDA guidelines have been approved and implemented, there was no stopping the organic food industry. Currently, it is now estimated to be a worth $32 Billion and is expected to grow exponentially as consumers become more educated and health conscious. Organic produce, meat, and deli consumption have increased significantly in the past decade.
What Qualifies as Organic Food?
Generally, organic food is produced by farmers and animal raisers who employ the use of environment-friendly methods and renewable resources. To get USDA certification, food products must be grown and processed according to federal guidelines. Companies that handle or process organic food until it gets to various establishments should also comply with strict requirements as well.
For produce to be called organic, it must rely on natural substances and mechanical or biologically-based farming methods as much as possible. It must be grown on soil that is deemed “clean” from prohibited substances within three years before harvest. No conventional pesticides should be used. Fertilizers subjected to bioengineering and ionizing radiation are prohibited. In cases when a grower needs to use synthetic substance for a specific purpose, additional inspection and approval from the regulatory board must be done.
Regulations for organic meat require that animals be raised under living conditions which allow them to behave naturally. Examples are free-range poultry, or grass-grazing bovine. For animal meat to be considered organic, they must only be fed 100% organic feed and forage too. They should also not be given hormones or antibiotics, nor should they be exposed to chemicals.
Lastly, multi-ingredient and processed foods with the USDA organic seal must truly be made with all-organic components with some very minor exceptions qualified by inspectors. These foods must be free from artificial preservatives, colors, and flavors.
Other non-food items labelled as organic like those used for body care, household products, beauty, etc. must pass very different sets of regulation and certification.
5 Advantages of Organic Eating
- Pesticide-free produce
- Higher in nutrients
- Antibiotic and synthetic hormone-free
1. Pesticides and other harmful chemicals are not used in growing organic produce.
Organic produce may not be 100% pesticide-free due to the presence of air or waterborne pesticides from conventional farms, or the use of some inspector-approved chemicals. Despite that, studies prove that they are still the better choice compared to conventional alternatives. In fact, numerous long-term experiments show that the trace presence of synthetic pesticides in organically cultivated fields is lower by as much as 96.5% compared to conventional farm lands.
Aside from pesticides, we also have toxic soil and heavy metals to worry about. Nearby industrial activities, pollution, chemical spills, and deforestation are just some of the probable reasons for soil toxicity which can affect the quality of produce harvested in those lands. Fortunately, organically grown produce has significantly lower toxic levels compared to their conventional counterparts. Studies like the 2014 meta-analysis from the British Journal of Nutrition, show that organically grown crops are 48% less likely to test for cadmium. A separate study in 2007 published in the Journal of the Science of Food and Agriculture also confirmed that organic crops contain fewer nitrates, and nitrites.
2. Organic meats are free from antibiotics and synthetic hormones
Due to the harsh and unsanitary conditions that most conventional livestock have to endure, they are often given antibiotics as protection against illnesses. Many animal raisers also use synthetic growth hormones so that the animals (except poultry) produce more milk or gain weight faster.
The FDA already limited and prohibited the use of antibiotics but there are still a lot of loopholes in the legislation. Antibiotics passed on from animal meat to humans via food consumption are believed to contribute to widespread antibiotic resistance in humans. Synthetic hormones, on the other hand, are linked to ever-increasing cancer cases.
The good thing about organic animal raising is that it focuses in preventive measures like the proper breed selection, quality balanced diet, and an environment with the right population density. As for medication, organic farms do not administer chemically synthesized drugs to the animals. Some vaccines, however, are conditionally permitted.
3. Organic foods are packed with more nutrients.
This point is quite controversial due to the fact that it is difficult to make a valid comparison between the two. Nonetheless, there is a lot of evidence to support the idea that organic food has more nutrients than conventional food.
Organic crops are said to have more dry matter, vitamin C, iron, magnesium, phosphorus, essential amino acids, and anti-oxidant micronutrients (like phenols and salicylic acid) than conventional crops. Some vegetables and cereals are also said to have higher quality proteins. As for organic meat and milk, a 2016 study published in the British Journal of Nutrition proves that they have about 50% more omega-3 fatty acids. This is attributed to the way livestock is raised and fed.
4. Organic foods are always non-GMO.
GMO means genetically-modified organism. These are plants or animals that have been changed via the injection and integration of genetic materials from other animals, plants, bacteria, or viruses. GMOs are called by many names – genetically engineered, herbicide tolerant, or Bt crops. Genetic manipulation is beneficial for mass producers because of its positive impact on productivity. However, GMOs may cause serious and long-term health problems to humans.
For example, genetically engineered corn contains pesticide that cannot be removed, even by washing. Also, most GM crops can survive spraying of Montsanto's Roundup pesticide while all the weeds around it die. It is also because of this phenomenon that pesticide-resistant weeds have developed. Thus, GM crops end up needing a special herbicides that may also affect the nearby flora and fauna.
Some tidbits to remember:
- All organic foods are non-GMO but not all non-GMOs are organic.
- 90% of canola oil is genetically engineered.
- 54% of sugar available in the US market is also GMO.
5. Organic farming is environment-friendly.
Organic foods are produced, manufactured, and distributed using high environmental quality standards. The strict regulations require operators to promote biodiversity, build healthy soils, and consider sustainability.
Organic farming relies on natural methods and techniques like composting, green manures, crop rotation, and biological pest control. As for organic meat production, ecological resources are used. Animals are fed in natural grasslands and by-products with low alternative value together with fodder that is grown without artificial fertilizers and pesticides.
Is Organic Food Really Organic?
1. Labeling Confusion
Some available goods in the market are intentionally or unintentionally confusing. If you want a truly organic food product, get one with the USDA “100% Organic” Seal. Those labelled as “Organic”, “Made with Organic ___”, and “Natural” are also very different.
- Organic – This contains no less than 95% organic ingredients. The other 5% must be organically produced unless commercially unavailable.
- Made with organic ____ - This contains 70% organic ingredients
- Natural – This type of labeling does not have clear restrictions.
Some products and brands are also called “free-range” and “hormone-free” that can be mistaken for 100% organic. Consumers must be aware of the various classifications. Otherwise, they might feel deceived or short-changed especially given the fact that organic products are really much more expensive.
Then there are the PLU codes, those mysterious 4-digit codes you find on the stickers of fruits and vegetables. These PLU numbers identify the various types of produce. #4011 is the PLU for a conventionally-grown yellow banana. An organic PLU will have a 9 prefix before it, i.e. #94011 signifies an organic yellow banana. A genetically engineered PLU will have the prefix 8 on the number, i.e. #84011 for a GMO yellow banana. So organic fruits and vegetables will have a PLU code beginning with a #9.
2. Nutritional Claims
As mentioned earlier, though there is scientific proof that organic foods have the nutritional edge over conventional ones, there is also evidence that there is no significant difference between the two. One of the numerous studies that support this idea was published in the Journal of the Science of Food and Agriculture in 2001. It says that nutritionally important differences between organic and conventional food relating to contents of minerals, vitamins, proteins and carbohydrates are not likely, primarily since none of these are deficient in typical First World diets, nor are present levels of pesticide residues in conventional products a cause for concern. Really? Any amount of pesticide residues are cause for concern!
USDA also makes no claim that organic food is safer or more nutritious.
3. Environmental Repercussions
Although it is true that farming and animal raising in organic systems employ a lot of environment-friendly measures, there are still a lot of negative effects of this rising global trend.
- Products that are grown and produced in far-flung countries but are compliant with USDA’s requirements can still get its seal of approval. This means that these goods still need to be shipped and imported and transferred from overseas, and then state to state, increasing carbon footprint.
- The cost for the production of organic beef and lamb, as well as the discharge of nitrogen and greenhouse gases per kilo of meat, is much higher compared to conventional means.
- Organic production requires more land. This limits its sustainability if space for food production and energy crops is scarce.
Go Organic, Go Local
Given the difficulty and the additional cost that producers have to bear just to get a 100% organic certification, many organic farmers are deciding to shift to other methods. Those who don’t want to comply with cumbersome USDA requirements but would still want to maintain sustainable methods join the Certified Naturally Grown(CNG) program. This program requires peer-to-peer inspection among member farmers.
Aside from joining the CNG, other farmers are resorting to selling
their goods in local organic markets. According to an IRI (a global provider of
data analytics) report called the Power of Produce, only 68% of organic food shoppers
rely on grocery stores. The remaining 32% opt to purchase from farmers’ markets
and other specialty stores. This is good news for small and medium-scale
farmers who are exempted from certification anyway and prohibited from
displaying the USDA Organic Seal.
Why is it Important to Eat Organic Food with Gallbladder Problems?
One of the most important functions of bile is to remove toxins that accumulate in the liver. With nearly all gallbladder conditions the bile is sluggish, or it is out of balance. Eating foods that contain pesticides, preservatives, colorings and other food additives just adds to the problem. Eating food in as natural a state as possible takes the burden off the liver, your gallbladder and your bile.
What’s Your Choice?
There certainly are a number of compelling reasons why more and more people are joining the organic movement. It is especially good for high-risk individuals like children, pregnant women, elderly, and people with diseases and allergies. Notice that we specified “organic” for certain items belonging to our gallbladder foods list? It is more expensive, yes. If you can afford it, then great! Eat organic! But if there are financial limitations or concerns about availability, then you should rethink your options.
The most important items to prioritize are those we consume on a daily
basis and to know, with organic produce,
which ones are more important to
buy organic and which ones are less important. The thin-skinned of fruits like
berries and tomatoes, for example, allow the pesticides to penetrate to the
interior where they can’t be washed off. Thick-skinned foods such as avocados
are much more protected. But do what you can to buy organic or CNG at local
farmers’ markets, and when you can’t, you can’t. No matter how small a step you take in selecting healthy foods, it's commendable and a good start.
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Brandt, K., & Mølgaard, J. P. (2001). Organic agriculture: does it enhance or reduce the nutritional value of plant foods?. Journal of the Science of Food and Agriculture, 81(9), 924-931.
Kumm, K. I. (2002). Sustainability of organic meat production under Swedish conditions. Agriculture, Ecosystems & Environment, 88(1), 95-101.
Macmillan, A., Naftulin, J. (2017) 4 Science-Backed Health Benefits of Eating Organic. Time Magazine.
Rembiałkowska, E. (2007). Quality of plant products from organic agriculture. Journal of the Science of Food and Agriculture, 87(15), 2757-2762.
Windsor, K. (2017) Get To Know the Organic Food Shopper.