What does Organic Food Mean? Definition, Practices, Certifications, and Benefits
Updated: Apr 1
If you’re still unsure how expensive organic apples are better than cheap regular ones, you’re not alone. Luckily, organic is not a philosophy or a lifestyle — it is a set of standards and practices with their unique advantages and disadvantages.
Today, I will answer all the questions you might have about organic food. For example, what exactly makes something organic? How can you be sure that the product is really organic? And finally, are organic products actually healthier and more environmentally friendly than regular ones? Keep reading to find out.
The word organic may evoke a wide variety of associations in people —
healthy, expensive, natural, eco-friendly, and so on. It’s important to keep in mind that the word itself only describes how the product was produced. Whether a product is organic or not is determined by the way agricultural products are grown and processed. It can be applied to fruit, vegetables, grains, and animal-based products such as fish, dairy, poultry, or meat.
Organic producers apply farming practices that improve soil and water quality, support biodiversity, minimize pollution, and provide safe livestock habitats. Organic farming can also be defined by the practices it does not permit. It prohibits the usage of most chemicals, synthetic fertilizers, pesticides, hormones, antibiotics, irradiation, or genetically modified organisms (GMO). All those materials are designed to make farming more efficient and cost-effective, but over time, they accumulate in the soil, farmed animals, plants, and finally, our bodies.
While conventional farming uses chemicals to eliminate any occurring problems, organic farming is more focused on prevention by means of using only natural materials and practices.
For example, plants grown on high-quality soil are more resistant to insects and diseases. That’s why organic farmers enhance the soil’s quality by adding compost or manure. They also practice crop rotation to prevent erosion and increase biodiversity.
Organic animal farming applies distinctive practices to ensure the well-being of the animals. That includes providing animals with access to outdoor areas, fresh air, clean drinking water, sunlight, and certified organic feed. Needless to say, the cheapest generic eggs, dairy, and meat often come from animals who may have never seen sunlight and were treated with antibiotics to keep them alive.
If you’re in doubt whether a product is organic or not, it probably isn’t. As I’ve already mentioned, organic is not just an adjective or a quality of a product, but a long list of requirements that farmers must fulfill.
In the US, the organic certification program is run by the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA). So if you want to buy a truly organic product, choose products with the USDA organic seal. A certified organic product can be marked as 100% Organic, Organic, or Made with Organic. The terms are used to label products that contain 100%, at least 95%, or at least 75% of organic ingredients, respectively.
In the EU, all the products that comply with the EU organic standards carry the organic logo — a white leaf on a green background. The logo can only be used for organic products that contain at least 95% of organic ingredients.
There’s hardly any doubt that organic products are better for the environment and farmed animals. However, are organic products actually healthier than non-organic ones? That’s a more complicated question.
The biggest and the most obvious advantage of organic produce over non-organic produce is a much lower level of pesticide residue. Although the amount of pesticide residue in conventionally grown produce is below a dangerous level, the long-term effect of pesticides on human health remains unclear. As the residue accumulates inside our bodies over several decades, it might bring some health complications. At the same time, there’s no definite conclusion regarding the safety of natural pesticides that are allowed in organic farming.
One thing is clear — you should always wash your fruit and vegetables before eating them. That way, you can avoid consuming any residual chemicals left on the surface of the produce. With some fruit and vegetables removing the outer leaves or skin can also be beneficial, although it can reduce the product’s nutritional value.
Research has proved that organic foods possess a higher level of antioxidants than conventional foods. The list includes but is not limited to vitamin C, zinc, and iron, which prevent cardiovascular diseases, aging, and certain types of cancer.
Studies have shown that many organic products contain 60% more antioxidants than their non-organic counterparts. That can be explained by the fact that in the absence of chemicals and pesticides, organic plants have to produce more protective compounds to protect themselves from various diseases.
It is also important to note that even organic products oxidize over time. So if you buy organic produce, make sure you eat it while it’s fresh. That way, you can be sure you are getting all its benefits. In fact, one of the reasons many people believe that organic products taste better is because they are usually grown on smaller farms that only sell locally. That ensures that the products you buy didn’t spend too much time on the road and are as fresh as it is possible.
Omega-3 Fatty Acids
Organic dairy, meat, and eggs may contain higher levels of omega-3 fatty acids and less saturated fats than conventional products. That can be explained by better living conditions and feeding for organic livestock. Omega-3 fatty acids is a healthy unsaturated fat that can improve your mental health and prevent heart diseases. By switching to organic products with higher levels of omega-3 fatty acids, you can increase your intake of healthy unsaturated fats without consuming more calories and saturated fat. However, there are some drawbacks too — research shows that organic milk may contain less selenium and iodine than non-organic milk.