When you visit the grocery store, you're faced with a question. Should you buy organic or not?
Eating organic can be spendy. You want to know if it's worth it.
This question raises other questions. Is organic food better for you? Is it better for the planet and the lifeforms living here? Must you always eat organic? Can you eat organic on a budget?
Stick around for five minutes to learn about these topics and others. First, though—an organic food definition.
What Is Organic Food?
Different countries have different criteria for labelling foods "organic." These criteria generally entail the limitation of pesticides, antibiotics, hormones, additives, and other forbidden substances in soil and feed.
Let's focus on the US. What does it mean to bear the USDA Organic seal?
For produce, the soil must contain no banned substances (i.e., synthetic fertilizers and pesticides) for three years before harvest.[*]
For meat, the animals must be:
- Fed 100% organic feed
- Allowed to roam naturally
- Not given antibiotics or hormones
And for multi-ingredient processed foods, most of the ingredients (with a few exceptions) must be organic. The rules also prohibit artificial colors, flavors, and preservatives.
Organic vs. Conventional
The organic label mainly delineates what a food doesn't contain. Compared to conventionally-raised foods, organic foods contain[*]:
- Fewer heavy metals like cadmium
- Lower levels of synthetic fertilizers
- Fewer pesticides
We're still trying to figure out how harmful pesticide residues in conventional foods are. But since chemicals like glyphosate (the active ingredient in RoundUp) are "probable carcinogens," it's probably wise to minimize exposure.[*]
Is Organic Food More Nutritious?
Avoiding toxic chemicals is reason enough to buy organic, but what about nutrient density? Organic foods win again.
Though organic foods have similar macros (fat, protein, carbs) as conventional foods, the micros are often different.[*] Consider the following:
- Organic crops have higher levels of plant-based antioxidants (aka, polyphenols)
- Organic dairy has more beneficial omega-3 fatty acids
- Organic beef has more CoQ10 (a heart antioxidant)[*]
To be clear, the nutritional differences aren't overwhelming. A few more polyphenols and omega-3s may not revolutionize your health.
But combined with toxin avoidance, you have a strong case that organic food is better for you.
Other Benefits of Going Organic
Most people buy organic because they believe it's healthier. As you just learned, this is largely true.
Yet there are other reasons to buy organic. Let's review a few.
First, conventional feedlots raise pigs, cattle, and poultry in squalid, inhumane conditions. Organic farms treat animals more ethically, allowing them to roam naturally.
Conventional farming practices also harm the environment. For example, the pesticides used on crops often spread (via runoff) to pollute surrounding rivers, creeks, and water supplies.[*]
Standard herding practices aren't eco-friendly either. When cows continually graze on single plots of land, it ruins the soil.
Conversely, organic farms often employ rotational grazing practices that enhance soil quality.[*] When cows move from plot to plot, it's good for the planet.
Lastly, eating organic may reduce the spread of antibiotic-resistant bacteria. Pumping cattle full of antibiotics may fatten them, but it also creates superbugs.[*]
More organic farming means fewer superbugs in the food supply. We like that.
Organic vs. Grass-fed
Many grass-fed meats are certified organic, but the two don't always overlap. They're separate sets of requirements.
The reasons to choose grass-fed meat mirror the reasons to choose organic meat. It's more nutritious, more ethical, and better for the planet.
According to the USDA, grass-fed means that "grass and forage" will be the lifetime feed source for ruminant animals like cows, sheep, and bison.[*]
Pro tip: look for "100% grass-fed" on the label. Why? Because the labelling requirements allow "grass-fed" cows to have some grain in their diets.
Let's talk eggs for a moment. The terms "free range" and "cage-free" are also USDA-regulated, but the regulations are less strict than organic.[*] "Free range" hens may not have the free range that's advertised.
What about "pasture-raised"? That claim isn't regulated, so watch out for it.
But if you see stamps of "Certified Humane" or "Animal Welfare Approved," you can be reasonably sure each chicken had an ethical plot of outdoor space.
Must You Always Eat Organic?
It's not always convenient (or cost-effective) to go all organic. Is it okay to eat some conventional foods?
Certainly. Pick your battles based on your preferences, beliefs, and budget.
If you prefer to avoid pesticides, avoid conventional produce on the "Dirty Dozen" list published annually by the Environmental Working Group.[*] Here's the 2022 list:
- Kale, collard, and mustard greens
- Bell and hot peppers
If you can only find (or afford) a few organic foods, consider buying from this list. And if you can widen your organic purview beyond the Dirty Dozen, that's great.
But you don't need to be perfect. You don't need to carry the planet's weight on your shoulders, overturn the factory farming system, or maximize your nutrient intake down to the last polyphenol.
Just do what you can.
You can also buy relatively uncontaminated conventional foods like avocados, sweet corn, pineapple, and other thick-skinned produce. See the EWG Clean Fifteen for the full list.
Eating Organic on a Budget
If you're cutting back on food costs, the organic section isn't helping. Everything is more expensive over there.
Just one bag of groceries can deliver a staggering blow to your credit card. You stand paralyzed at the self-checkout display, wondering how organic salmon, broccoli, and olive oil cost you seventy-five bucks.
Eating organic on a budget requires a strategy. You must choose your spots to spend.
Is organic olive oil worth twice the cost of conventional olive oil? If they're both 100% extra virgin, not necessarily.
Must you always buy organic meat, fish, and eggs? Also no. (Many non-organic suppliers have transparent, ethical sourcing processes.)
But should you crack open your wallet for organic strawberries, spinach, and kale? If you can afford it, yes. Money that lowers your pesticide intake is money well spent.
Keep these thoughts in mind next time you visit the grocery store.