Official seal of the National Organic Program

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People who know my eating and cooking habits know how I feel about organic food. I follow the Environmental Working Group’s Shopper’s Guide to Pesticides in produce when I’m at the grocery store and find it extremely difficult to eat fruits and veggies that I feel may have high amounts of pesticides in them. You know the phrase “knowledge is power?” With me it’s more like “knowledge is paranoia” because as soon as I become aware of something I can’t get it out of my head. And it’s difficult for me to think “Well, a little poison won’t kill me.” That’s just not how my brain works. And it’s not as if I think I’m going to live to be 200 years old or that I’m promised never to get cancer because I eat organic food. But my philosophy is to try not to do things that I know could be harmful to me (as much as possible). So there you have it.

So what is “organic” anyway? The term refers to the way fruits, vegetables, meats, grains and dairy products are grown and processed. I think of organic as being closer to the way people grew their own food way back in the day, before food production became an industry. As soon as food production became big business a lot of the concern for the consumer went out the window, in my humble opinion.

Here’s a handy-dandy chart that the Mayo Clinic created to outline the differences between conventional and organic farming methods:

Conventional Organic
Apply chemical fertilizers to promote plant growth. Apply natural fertilizers, such as manure or compost, to feed soil and plants.
Spray insecticides to reduce pests and disease. Use beneficial insects and birds, mating disruption or traps to reduce pests and disease.
Use chemical herbicides to manage weeds. Rotate crops, till, hand weed or mulch to manage weeds.
Give animals antibiotics, growth hormones and medications to prevent disease and spur growth. Give animals organic feed and allow them access to the outdoors. Use preventive measures — such as rotational grazing, a balanced diet and clean housing — to help minimize disease.

In the U.S. the United States Department of Agriculture controls the certification and accreditation of organic producers. Organic foods can be labeled with the term “100% organic” or “organic.” According to the USDA, “products labeled as ‘100 percent organic’ must contain (excluding water and salt) only organically produced ingredients and processing aids.”

“Products labeled ‘organic’ must consist of at least 95 percent organically produced ingredients (excluding water and salt). Any remaining product ingredients must consist of nonagricultural substances approved on the National List including specific non-organically produced agricultural products that are not commercially available in organic form.”

Sometimes you will see the term “made with organic ingredients.” This indicates that the processed product contains at least 70 percent organic ingredients. The label may also list as many as three of the organic ingredients or food groups. Interestingly, the USDA notes that “Processed products labeled ‘made with organic ingredients’ cannot be produced using excluded methods, sewage sludge, or ionizing radiation.” Would a company knowingly put sewage sludge in a food product? Probably. Oh, I sound cynical because I am. Ha.

I remember reading not too long ago (and probably signed a petition related to to it) that some food producers were using the term “natural,” to purposely confuse consumers into thinking the product was also organic and healthy. Don’t let them fool you: natural ≠ organic.

So, why choose organic? Organic foods haven’t been shown to be more nutritious than conventionally produced food. For me it comes down to the knowns and the unknowns. The government determines what amount of pesticides in our food is considered safe. You or I may not agree with those levels. Case in point, there is a current issue over the use of a highly toxic chemical that was approved for use on strawberry crops (most strawberries are grown in California). The government determined how much of the toxin is “safe” and this approved level runs counter to what scientists believe. There are toxins all around us, in our food, in the air, in our homes, in our drinking water. The list goes on and on. And organic farming is safer for the environment which helps cut down on the amount of environmental toxins to which we are exposed.

Another benefit? Organic foods are also limited in the amount of food additives, artificial sweeteners, MSG, etc. they can contain.

But another reason – and if you don’t care at all about the potential harmful effects on your health this might be the kicker for you – is the taste. I ate some red and yellow peppers once that actually tasted like they had been sprayed with Raid. Gross. Imagine eating a big green salad that tastes like bug spray.

So of course I suggest you take everything I just wrote with a grain of salt and do your own research if you’re considering the benefits of buying organic. Don’t take my word for anything because I’m no expert. But I’m definitely a convert.

Here are a couple of web sites I like to visit for more information on food production and product safety.

Organic Consumers Association:

Environmental Working Group: They have SO much great information and do really good work.