We hear it everywhere we go – eat organic. Everyone seems to be talking about going organic, with diet and purchases and everything we can. And in many ways, we see every day some new way that organic food is good for you. But not all organic foods are created equal. In fact, some food is labeled organic but doesn’t really make the mark.
How do you know what food is truly organic, and what are the advantages of organic food? Let’s take a look at some of the things you should know about truly organic food, and then we can discuss how organic food can be of benefit to you in a number of ways.
Table of Contents
What does“Organic” mean?
It might be helpful to start by going back to the basic definition of the word ‘organic’ itself. Something that is organic by nature is derived from living matter. What that means is we’re talking about food items that come from something that was alive – whether a plant or an animal. If we look at our typical food sources, pretty much everything in any diet in the world would, realistically, be organic. But when we talk about ‘organic food’, this is a completely different issue.
Defining Organic Food
When it comes to defining organic food, things are a little more difficult. Perhaps it’s easier to look at the history of farming and agriculture. Over several decades, farming and production were benefited by the use of man-made materials that increased output. For example, growth regulators helped with greater amounts of crops and larger fruits and vegetables, while hormones were used to increase the size and output of livestock. Pesticides kept fields free of harmful insects, as well.
But eventually, these things have taken a toll on the environment and the health and well-being of those consuming the product of this type of farming practice. So, many farms are going back to natural methods that don’t utilize chemicals in their practices. This is part of the organic initiative.
There are multiple definitions of what organic food is, which is why it’s difficult sometimes to truly determine what counts as organic. Part of this is creating an agricultural system that works toward producing sustainable food examples– in the environment, socially, as well as economically. Consider that the Department states that this system should depend on the rotation of crops, both animal and plant-based manures, and some weeding by hand as well as natural pest control. So, how far does a farm have to go to consider its product worthy of the label ‘organic’?
The regulations are different in various parts of the world, and some of them can be interpreted to the benefit of the farmer, should he decide not to remove all artificial and chemical products from his farming technique. However, in general, far fewer chemicals and toxins are used in organic farming, which produces organic food, than in recent traditional farming methods.
In the United States, organic produce is grown without the use of artificial pesticides, anything with GMO’s, oil-based fertilizers, or excrement-based fertilizers. When it comes to livestock that is raised only for the purpose of meat, dairy products, or even eggs, the animals must have access to the outdoors, must be fed an organic diet, and must not be given antibiotics, growth hormones, or animal by-products. All of this means there is a lot of intensive labor that isn’t required for traditional farming methods, but in the end, the output is worth the effort.
Labeling Organic Food
When it comes to earning the organic label, food has to meet certain standards. For example, in Europe, a composite food must be made up of 95% certified organically produced plants or animals to earn the organic label. The certification process is completed by certain bodies that carry out regular inspections of the food. One such body, considered the ‘gold standard’, is the Soil Association.
If an ingredient cannot be produced organically, it’s placed on a list of allowable non-organic ingredients so that this doesn’t hold up the labeling process, so you never have to worry that you’ve made a mistake in your purchase. But you won’t find things like artificial sweeteners or coloring in organic foods; these are not on the list of allowable items.
Local Food or Organic Food?
Just because the food is grown locally doesn’t mean it’s organic, and vice versa. “Locally grown food” simply means food that is directly grown in the local area, local region, state, or country.
You are probably more likely to find fresher produce and other farm products if you shop locally at farmers’ markets and other sources for locally grown materials. Organic farms tend to be smaller, and these farmers make more at farmers’ markets, so you might find a treasure trove here. However, you’ll have to find out about the organic nature of these purchases.
Besides, shopping locally helps promote small, local farms and keeps many farmers in business against big commercial producers. It’s always a great way to support your community and gain on freshness. And you’ll usually save money this way as well.
The Difference in Organic Materials
To make this a little clearer, let’s take a look at what ‘natural’ fertilizers are.
- Natural Fertilizing and Weeding – You can go to the Weed n Feed store near you and find all sorts of chemicals that are used in farming – both for fertilizing the soil and for killing weeds. These are used traditionally, but they aren’t allowed for organic farming. Instead, natural efforts are made. Fertilizer consists of manure and compost. You may not like the smell, but it’s all natural and far healthier than the chemicals on the market. And when it comes to weeds, rather than spraying herbicides and other chemicals, weeds are pulled by hand and tilling and mulching is used, along with crop rotation, to keep the area free of weeds.
- Pesticides – Did you know that the use of pesticides in foods has been linked to higher rates of cancer, autism, and other long-term and mortal conditions? In organic farming, there is still some pesticide use, but these are more ‘natural’ and contain far lower levels of chemicals. In addition, natural methods that include using other insects, birds, and even traps are employed to negate the need for excess chemicals. Here are some sprays used as natural pesticides:
- Garlic Spray
- Red Pepper Spray
- Oil Spray
- Tobacco Spray
- Citrus Spray
The Truth about GMOs
GMOs – genetically modified organisms (also referred to as GEs – genetically engineered foods) are plants that have had their DNA unnaturally altered, meaning they have been altered in some way that is impossible to recreate in nature. That means there has been some form of crossbreeding or other modification that is usually incorporated to make sure the product is resistant to pesticides or that it produces an insecticide naturally.
Such ingredients are used everywhere, especially in breakfast cereals, and many of these are fed to livestock in traditional farming efforts. Consider that most sweet corn grown in the United States is genetically modified, making it resistant to Round-Up, which is a heavily used herbicide. The corn also produces Bt Toxin, its own natural insecticide. Other crops that are often genetically modified include:
Look for foods that contain soy lecithin or corn syrup, and try to avoid these, since they are most likely filled with GMOs.
Another problem with GMOs is that they have caused greater use of harmful pesticides like Round-Up, which is harmful to the environment and to humans. also, there are greater food allergies when GMOs and pesticides are involved, as well as higher levels of gastrointestinal problems and diseases. Studies have shown that switching to organic diets can significantly reduce allergic reactions to many foods and can help reduce the symptoms or completely negate these diseases.
Benefits of Organic Food?
Going organic is a personal choice but one that’s beneficial not only to you and your health but to the environment, as well as to the plants and animals on the farm. There are plenty of areas that are affected by the choice to take the organic route, and it’s important to know how much of a difference it makes in all areas.
- Fresh Ingredients: Because there are not as many chemicals used in organic farming, it’s often the case that the produce will not last as long. That’s because the chemicals act as preservatives. However, the bright side to this is that buying organic means that your food is likely much fresher, so you have the best ingredients for whatever you’re cooking for the day.
- Eco-Friendly: Let’s not forget the effects on our environment. With organic farming, we can avoid dumping chemicals on our produce or into our livestock. Lower levels of pesticides result in less residue from chemicals and lower levels of heavy metals in the foods. Pesticides have been linked to developmental delays in children, behavioral disorders, autism, harm to the immune system, and motor dysfunction.
There are also now ‘superweeds’ and ‘superbugs’ that cannot be removed from the environment without the use of extreme toxins, such as those found in Agent Orange. Because we can’t completely wash or peel away the pesticides from our produce, we can’t negate these effects completely from being a risk. With organic farming, the amount of pesticide used is far less.
- Saves on resources: It reduces the erosion of soil that would otherwise be overused, increases the fertility of that same soil, conserves water that would otherwise be needed to cleanse the area of chemicals (and then become tainted itself), and uses less energy overall.
- Healthier Flaura and Fauna: You can bet that the birds and animals in the area around the farms are healthier, with less toxic waste being washed into their environment, not to mention naturally growing trees and other plants.
- Safe soil and water: Even humans can suffer from the effects of water and soil contamination by the chemicals used in farming because they can easily leak into the local water supply.
Organic growth promotes healthier soil, which leads to higher quality and longer availability of land for use. This allows for more growth and a greater variety of crops over time, which then feeds into the natural diet plan well, assisting us in having more fruits and vegetables in a greater variety.
- Humane treatment of livestock: In most cases, traditional farming has livestock penned up or overpopulated with little freedom. In organic farming culture, you have ‘free range’ feeding, which promotes an open, wandering environment for livestock, allowing them greater freedom and room to move around. It’s more natural, and the exercise can actually create leaner healthier meat. Organically raised livestock always have access to the outdoors instead of being raised completely in a pen; are fed a healthy diet with rotational grazing and an extremely clean living environment to prevent disease.
- No growth regulators: Organic livestock isn’t raised on hormones and growth regulators, which means that we don’t end up with unnaturally high levels of hormones in our bodies. These hormones can lead to earlier development for children and earlier changes in life for adults. It can also affect our mentality by overproducing our own natural chemicals and changing our chemical makeup.
The Cost of Organic
When you go to the store, you’re likely to find a bit of sticker shock as you consider the price of organic foods. There’s a reason so many organic materials are more expensive. Consider that, with traditional farming, a few squirts of a chemical can negate any of the weeds in an entire field of wheat or corn. However, in organic farming, you have to hand weed as well as spend more time rotating crops and using other methods to assure those weeds don’t take over the fields.
Almost every aspect of organic farming is more labor intensive. That additional work can often mean less produce in a season. Therefore, to recover the same profit, the cost of each individual fruit or vegetable increases. But there’s more to it, and plenty of ways you can save.
1. Shop locally at farmers’ markets. Cutting out the transportation costs as well as the cost of the middleman at a supermarket can significantly reduce the cost of your organic produce. There are usually farmers’ markets or co-ops within a reasonable distance that can help you save on most of your product while still maintaining the integrity of having an organic diet.
2. When you have to shop at your supermarket for organic foods, start with in-season produce. Buying things that are out of season costs more, and you aren’t likely to find it as fresh or ripe, either. Spending more of your budget on in-season produce will help you save a lot of money.
3. Start with animal output first. Buy your organic meat, eggs, and dairy products as a priority. You want to avoid the unnatural diets fed to traditionally raised livestock at all costs, so the largest portion of your ‘organic funding’ should be concentrated on these efforts.
4. Continue prioritizing your organic purchases based on the produce that is most affected by pesticides and chemicals. Go shopping armed with a list of produce you need to buy organic, which is updated based on the analysis of groups like the Environmental Working Group (a nonprofit that analyzes government pesticide testing). You’ll often want to prioritize the organic purchase of things like the items on this sustainable food list:
b. Bell peppers
g. Cherry tomatoes
|i. Collard greens
j. Summer squash
o. Hot peppers
5. Recognize the fruits and vegetables that don’t commonly carry such danger in terms of heavy chemicals because they are lower in pesticides. If you have to buy traditionally grown produce to save a little money, these ‘Clean 15’ are the ones to buy:
d. Sweet corn
j. Sweet peas
k. Sweet potatoes
6. Be sure to shop around. As with other items, every store has its price, and you may find that one store has lower prices on the same organic foods than your typical go-to location. Shopping in different markets can save you a bundle, especially if you follow the sales that are often in place on organic materials.
7. Don’t buy into the hype. Just because a snack or dessert says it’s organic doesn’t mean it’s healthy. If you’re trying to live a healthier life, you certainly don’t want to get caught up with products that are high in sugar and trans-fat. Keep an eye on overall nutritional labels, and don’t buy the ‘organic cheesecake’ style advertisements.
The advantages of organic produce are immeasurable in many ways, even if there is a lot of hype that hasn’t quite been proven. Even the basics of reducing ingestion of pesticides and keeping chemicals out of the environment can significantly improve health overall. The fact that livestock is better cared for also has its benefits, which include that, since we ingest what the livestock ingests, we could be sentencing ourselves to health problems such as resistance to antibiotics and mad cow disease.
You don’t have to turn your life upside down or spend a fortune to eat a more organic diet. In fact, you don’t have to go completely organic. Choose to switch where it counts most, and watch your family become healthier. Do what you can to promote organic foods, including finding ways to purchase from organic farms in your local area if you can. If there are farmers’ markets in your area, save yourself some money and invest in the organic produce you’ll find here.
Make sure you work with animal products first. After all, this is one of the largest problems in traditional farming, and switching to organic meat, dairy, and eggs can really change your life when it comes to health. After that, prioritize the most beneficial switches. And make sure you aren’t buying organic just because it says ‘organic’. If it’s junk food, it’s still unhealthy. And if you’re buying a vegetable because it’s organic but no one at home eats it, what’s the point? Learn to save where you can and splurge where you can afford it to get the best bang for your buck.
Never underestimate the value of organic, but don’t put stock in anything that hasn’t been confirmed. Follow the science and updates, and you’ll see the change and appreciate every minute of it as you learn to be healthier and your diet richer.