Nutrition articles by Alyssa Simon, RD

Organic, In a Nutshell

on June 5, 2012

There has been a lot of talk about organic foods and beverages recently. Some say it’s beneficial to our health and our environment, while others say the only effect organic has is on our wallet. With all the pushing and pulling of the agricultural industries, you may find yourself in a (organic or nonorganic) pickle. What does organic actually mean? Can it help us become healthier? What are the disadvantages? Why is organic food so much more expensive?

In a nutshell, here’s what you should know about organic foods.


What does the term “organic” actually mean?

Accoring to the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA), organic is defined as a “food or other agricultural product that has been produced through approved methods that integrate cultural, biological, and mechanical practices that foster cycling of resources, promote ecological balance, and conserve biodiversity. Synthetic fertilizers, sewage sludge, irradiation, and genetic engineering may not be used” (source). In other words, organic foods are grown without pesticides or fertilizers, and use the natural balance of the environment to grow and flourish.


What is the difference between 100% organic, organic, and made with organic ingredients? (source).

If you pay close attention to the labels on organic foods, you may have noticed there are different terms. Some say 100% organic, some simply are labeled organic, and some specify made with organic ingredients. According to the USDA, the labeling requirements are based on the percentage of organic ingredients in the food product.

  • 100% organic means the product can contain only processing aids and ingredients that were organically produced. The USDA Organic seal can be used.
  • Organic means the product must contain ingredients that were 95% organically produced. The ingredients that were not produced organically must be part of nonagricultural substances at are on an approved National List. The USDA Organic seal can be used.
  • “Made with organic ingredients” means that it must contain ingredients that were 70% organically produced. On the front of the package, it can list up to 3 of the organic ingredients or food groups. The USDA Organic seal cannot be used.
  • “Contains organic ingredients” means the same as “made with organic ingredients”, except it can list up to 3 of the organic ingredients or food groups on the information panel of the package, rather than the front (source).


How is organic food grown compared to non-organic food?

Organic food cannot be produced using exluded methods (methods used to genetically modify organisms [source]), sewage sludge, or ionizing radiation (source). Organic food is grown without pesticides. This means it is grown with natural fertilizers such as manure and compost, pests are controlled naturally with the use birds and beneficial insects, and weeds are contolled with natural methods such as pulling the weeds, tilling, and mulching (source).

Non-organic food is grown using chemical fertilizers or synthetics, rather than manure or compost. Pests are controlled using insecticides, and chemical herbicides are used to control weeds (source).


What are the pros of growing and buying organic food?

Organic food contains fewer pesticides. This is important because over time, the build up of pesticides in our bodies may lead to health complications, genetic mutations, and other unknown problems. Pesticides can also contribute negatively to those with weakened immune systems, such as fetuses and children, elderly, and people going through chemotherapy or radiation. Pesticides may also contribute to chronic diseases, although more evidence is needed to determine this (source).

Organic food is fresher. Food that is produced organically lacks preservatives that increase the shelf life, and makes it more vulnerable to spoilage. For this reason, organic food may be brought to the grocery store from a local or semi-local farm (although this is not always true), and is therefore fresher. Plus, fresher tastes better! (source).

Organic farming is beneficial to the environment. According to HelpGuide.org, “Organic farming practices reduce pollution (air, water, soil), conserve water, reduce soil erosion, increase soil fertility, and use less energy”. As well as being beneficial to the environment, organic farming is better for the farmer who does not have to inhale the pollutants and poisons. (source).

What are the cons of growing and buying organic food?

Organic food is more expensive. The organic practices of farmers (such as mulching or weeding instead of spraying pesticides) are more expensive and yield less product (source). This is because organic practices are not subsidized the way conventional farmers are. Farmers also need certification to be called organic, and organic feed for animals is often more expensive than conventional feed (source).

Organic food may not appear “attractive” (source). Foods that are grown conventionally often have a certain “perfect” look to them; they lack scratches and bumps, have a well desired shape, and are smooth and shiny. Some people may find the natural look of organic food unattractive, and may think it has gone bad.

The Dirty Dozen (source)

You may have heard of the Dirty Dozen, which is a term given to the 12 foods that have the highest levels of pesticides and is recommended to be bought organic. The Dirty Dozen includes:

  • Apples
  • Bell peppers
  • Carrots
  • Celery
  • Cherries
  • Grapes (imported)
  • Kale
  • Lettuce
  • Nectarines
  • Peaches
  • Pears
  • Strawberries


Tips for buying organic on a budget

If you are interested in buying organic food, don’t let the higher prices scare you away. There are ways to stick to your grocery budget and include organic foods!

Examine your usual list. Check out what you usually buy, and see what is healthy and what is not. If you can cut out some unhealthier food and replace it with organic produce, you may find your wallet and your waistline will thank you!

Be careful with organic “junk food”. Just because a food is labeled organic doesn’t necessarily mean you should buy it. If you only have room for some organic foods in your budget, purchase produce over products like organic cookies and soda.

Buy in season (source). When foods are “in season”, they are often cheaper and fresher!

Shop at farmer’s markets and CSA (community supported agriculture) (source). Farmer’s markets are not only a great way to support your local farmers, but you may find a cheaper deal on organic produce! You can also get to know your farmers, and find out exactly how and where your food comes from.

Shop at and join a food co-op (source). Food co-ops are a great way to explore different types of organic produce, and you may find a better deal here than in a grocery store. You may also get a discount for being a member.

For more information on organic food, check out HelpGuide.org, Mayo Clinic, and The NY Times.

3 responses to “Organic, In a Nutshell

  1. Kailey says:

    I am super picky about my apples, tomatoes & peppers since I eat those daily. I also think its confusing how they word organic – a lot of people don’t know the difference between 100% organic or made with organic ingredients

  2. Fantastic site you have here but I was curious if you knew
    of any community forums that cover the same topics talked about in
    this article? I’d really like to be a part of group where I can get comments from other knowledgeable individuals that share the same interest. If you have any recommendations, please let me know. Appreciate it!

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