Nutrition: Understanding Nutritional Claims Chapter 5

Organic: Is It Better?


The Moveable Margins of Organic Labeling

Agriculture used to be exclusively organic. By necessity. It is only in the past century that farmers have been able to spray their fields and crops with chemical fertilizers, herbicides and pesticides. Modern agriculture has been able to feed the world in large part thanks to these industrially-produced chemicals. At the same time, however, concerns over the impact of chemical-based agriculture have also been growing. READ MORE

What Makes Something Organic?

Organic food can be defined from different perspectives. First, by what it does not use. According to the USDA, “Organic meat, poultry, eggs, and dairy products come from animals that are given no antibiotics or growth hormones. Organic food is produced without using most conventional pesticides; fertilizers made with synthetic ingredients or sewage sludge; bioengineering; or ionizing radiation.”

But just as significantly, organic agriculture can also be defined by what it does use. Organic farmers apply techniques first used thousands of years ago, such as crop rotation and the use of composted animal manure and green cover crops to maintain long-term soil health and fertility. Organic production uses biological control to manage weeds, insects and diseases, and organic livestock production adheres to the humane treatment of animals.

Perhaps most importantly, however, is that organic agriculture integrates farming practices into an ecological whole. Balance and harmony are the keys. Organic agriculture promotes water conservation and soil fertility through practices that restore, maintain and enhance biological diversity and ecological harmony. If that sounds like a mission, it is. As the USDA phrases it, “The primary goal of organic agriculture is to optimize the health and productivity of interdependent communities of soil life, plants, animals and people.” And not just for today, but for future generations as well. Call it organics for the planet.

Different Degrees of Organic

When it comes to labels, “organic” is not an all-or-nothing proposition. The USDA has defined different categories of organic claims.

  • “100% organic” means that all ingredients in a food meet organic standards.

  • “Organic” products must consist of at least 95% organically produced ingredients.

  • “Made with organic” products must contain at least 70% organic ingredients. A product that meets this standard can list up to three of the organic ingredients. Soup made with at least 70% organic ingredients, for example, could be labeled “soup made with organic peas, potatoes, and carrots.”

  • Products that contain less than 70% organic ingredients cannot use the term “organic” on the principal display panel. They may, however, identify the specific organic components on the ingredients information panel.



Is Organic Safer?

Concern over the effects of pesticides is a key reason most people buy organic products. Not all pesticides are equal, however. According to the EPA, “The health effects of pesticides depend on the type of pesticide. Some... affect the nervous system. Others may irritate the skin or eyes. Some pesticides may be carcinogens. Others may affect the hormone or endocrine system in the body.” READ MORE

The health effects of pesticide poisoning can be acute for those handling them in large quantities, particularly farm workers. But for most consumers, the concern is over the long-term effects of pesticides, which can remain in the ecosystem for many years.

Many studies have examined the effects of pesticide exposure on the risk of cancer and have found associations with leukemia, brain, breast, prostate, liver and lung cancer. There is evidence that exposure to even low levels of pesticide are linked to a significantly higher risk of developing Parkinson’s disease. A study on the effect of one pesticide, chlorpyrifos (the residential use of this organophosphate was banned in 2004), found that exposure to it was linked to developmental delays, both physical and cognitive, as well as behavioral problems in children, especially attention deficit hyperactivity disorder. There is also evidence that links pesticide exposure to birth defects.

It is important to understand, however, that while studies have shown that pesticides can pose serious health risks, that doesn’t mean the chemical residues on conventionally grown fruits and vegetables are the culprits. Many researchers contend that the levels of pesticide residues found on conventionally-grown fruits and vegetables pose no risk at all. And no doubt, proponents of both organic and conventional agriculture will continue to cite studies in their favor. What virtually all experts will agree on, however, is that benefits of a diet rich in fruits and vegetables are paramount.

As Yale’s Dr. David Katz says, “Yes, you can find organic gummi bears. But organic gummi bears are still gummi bears. And conventionally grown broccoli may not be organic, but it's still broccoli. And the science that tells us that eating more fruits and vegetables is associated with better health outcomes is not, by any means, limited to organic fruits and vegetables.” LESS


Are Organic Foods More Nutritious?

Some proponents of organic foods believe they are not just safer because they are chemical free, but also more nutritious. A few studies have found that some organic produce has higher levels of certain minerals, vitamins and antioxidants. According to the American Dietetic Association, “some organic fruits, vegetables and juices may contain more phytochemicals (antioxidants and polyphenols) compared to their conventionally grown counterparts.” Other studies, however, have not found any significant differences in nutrient levels. In some cases, different nutrient levels may be due to harvest conditions or the varieties being grown. The sensible conclusion? Just as it is not possible to categorically say that organic products are safer compared to conventionally grown products, it is also not possible to say that they are superior in their nutrition value. When in doubt, remind yourself: gummi bears are still gummi bears and broccoli is still broccoli.

Photo of boy running courtesy of Erik Soderstrom

The material on this site is for informational purposes only and is not intended as medical advice. It should not be used to diagnose or treat any medical condition. Consult a licensed medical professional for the diagnosis and treatment of all medical conditions and before starting a new diet or exercise program. If you have a medical emergency, call 911 immediately.