Walking through the grocery store these days, we’re bombarded by labels. Foods boast that they are free-range, farm-fed or organic, all hinting at greater health and sustainability. Those labels might help you make a snap decision between brands, but if you’re like most people you probably wonder what organic really means.
The mixed information, like whether or not organic food is healthier for people, what pesticides can be used, and whether it’s worth the extra cost, has led to a lot of confusion for consumers. Here’s what organic really means – and doesn’t mean – and how you can use the label for more informed shopping.
“Organic refers to foods that are grown using specific practices and methods that aim to improve or maintain ecological balances between soil, plants and animals,” says Francene Steinberg, PhD, RDN, chair of University of California Davis College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences Department of Nutrition.
Organic foods are grown with fewer synthetic pesticides and fertilizers than conventionally-grown foods, since these products can make soil less healthy in the long term by depleting it.
Farms that are organic use best practices for the environment, like increasing diversity of crops and animals, or rotating how their fields are used. No genetically modified organisms (GMOs) – products that have their DNA altered by humans – can be used in organic items. That’s because the organic label denotes that the food grown or produced is naturally occurring. Some people also believe GMOs are toxic, although that hasn’t been scientifically proven.
To be labeled organic, a product must meet regulatory requirements.
There’s a common misconception that organic means items are produced without pesticides or fertilizers, says Steinberg. Organic farms can still use non-synthetic pesticides. Some synthetic pesticides that have no natural alternatives, like copper sulfate, can be allowed in organic farming.
“Organic doesn’t mean ‘pesticide-free,'” says Christine Byrne, RD, a dietician nutritionist with Christine Byrne Nutrition. Because of that, you should wash all produce, including organic items, before cooking with or consuming them.
“Organic doesn’t mean that a product is more nutritious,” she says. Some research indicates that organic items may have higher levels of nutrients like omega-3 fatty acids, but the difference was not enough to make an impact on health.
Finally, organic is not the same as “natural,” says Ellis Hunnes. Organic has strict labeling requirements, while the “natural” label is less stringently defined as a minimally processed product without artificial colors, preservatives, or flavors.
To be labeled organic in the US, products must meet qualifications required by the USDA’s Agricultural Marketing Service. These guidelines are set to promote environmental health, says Dana Ellis Hunnes, PhD, RD, a senior dietitian at the Ronald Reagan UCLA Medical Center.
Organic farms recycle resources, rotate how their lands are used to avoid resources being depleted, and conserve biodiversity by using genetically-diverse crops and livestock.
Outside the US, many other countries have similar labeling programs. The qualifications for organic labeling in the US are tailored to different products:
Organic produce must be grown in soil that hasn’t been exposed to prohibited substances — which includes most synthetic fertilizers and pesticides — for at least three years before they acquire an organic label.
The animal must have been raised in conditions that allowed for its normal behaviors, like grazing in a pasture. It must have been given organic feed and can’t have been given or hormones.
Multi-ingredient foods must contain organic ingredients, with a few exceptions like the enzymes needed for yogurts or baking soda in baked goods. They can’t have artificial coloring, preservatives or flavors.
In order to be labeled organic, products must come from farmers and facilities that have been certified organic. To be certified, a producer must follow five steps:
1. Create an organic system plan detailing how the farm or facility will adhere to guidelines.
2. Implement the system and have it reviewed by a certifying agent.
3. Be inspected.
4. Have the inspection report reviewed by the certifying agent.
5. Receive a decision. Have annual inspections and reviews.
The USDA uses four different organic labels. Here’s what each means:
100 Percent Organic: This means all ingredients, except water and salt, are certified organic. This label is used most for raw, unprocessed, or minimally processed plant and animal products, like fresh produce or meat.
Organic: Contains at least 95% organic ingredients (excluding salt and water)
Made with Organic ___: Contains at least 70% organic ingredients. There are additional requirements that the non-organic ingredients must meet.
Specific Organic Ingredients: This label is used for foods that contain less than 70% organic ingredients. It specifies which ingredients are organic, for example, “made with organic tomatoes.”
The most important way to eat a healthier diet is to focus on a diverse diet.
“The bottom line is that eating a variety of nutritious foods regularly is the most important aspect of good nutrition,” says Bryne.
Scientists are still trying to determine whether organic foods are healthier. Consumers are split, with 45% of American adults thinking organic produce is healthier than nonorganic produce.
“Buying organic isn’t necessarily healthier,” says Byrne. “Organic food may be more nutritious in some cases, but not always.”
For example, a 2018 scientific review found “likely human benefit” from eating organic. The study showed that organic dairy and meats had more healthy omega-3 fatty acids, but not enough more to have a nutritional impact. A key benefit of an organic diet may be reducing exposure to antibiotics, which can contribute to antibiotic resistant illnesses, the study also found.
And while many proponents of organic foods cite the lower amounts of pesticides as a reason for presuming organic foods are healthier, pesticides aren’t a huge factor for health, says Byrne.
“Conventional foods contain these pesticide residues at such a low level that there likely isn’t a huge health risk to consuming them,” Byrne says.
While the human health impacts of eating organic are still being proven, there’s stronger evidence for the environmental benefit, says Steinberg. Organic farms generally improve their soil quality with time, and the soil on organic farms has a healthier microbiome – or good bacteria – which can increase production.
Opting for organic labels can serve as a shortcut to finding more sustainable foods.
“If you’re looking for a quick and easy way to vet a product’s sustainability, the organic label can be helpful,” says Byrne.
However, “the conversation about organic foods can be limiting and should be expanded to consider additional factors around sustainable eating,” says Steinberg.
If you want to increase sustainable eating, Steinberg suggests that you grow some items at home, shop for local items and buy in-season produce to cut down on the environmental impact of shipping, and choose minimally processed foods since they use less energy in production.
Buying organic food may have health benefits for people and the environment. Organic produce has become more common, but it’s still more expensive than conventionally-grown produce, and not accessible to everyone, which is significant since 10% of American households are food insecure.
“The debate over whether organic food is better than conventional has its place, but it’s far more important that we focus on increasing food access overall, so that people can meet their basic nutrient needs,” says Ellis Hunnes.
People who are unable to eat organic “will not be sacrificing personal nutritional health,” says Steinberg. Conventionally-grown produce and farm products are still healthy, at a lower cost. However, if you have extra income you can vote with your dollar by buying organic, showing support for more sustainable environmental practices, she says.
Organic foods and products adhere to production guidelines set by the USDA’s Agricultural Marketing Service. The guidelines dictate practices and products that can be used to make items that are labeled organic.
Although many people equate organic with healthy, research is unclear about the health impacts of an organic diet. Shopping organic is a personal choice, but other decisions — like buying from local farmers or making sure to get your recommended fruit and vegetables servings — can have a bigger impact on environmental and personal health.