Organic Food vs. Conventional Food

A stroll through Whole Foods or pretty much any large supermarket these days reveals the interest Americans have in organic foods. They are often kept in bins or on shelves separate from the regular foods, but when compared side-by-side – apples to apples and oranges to oranges, so to speak – there often doesn’t appear to be that much difference between them. Except in price. It is almost a given that you will pay more for any produce or meats labeled “organic.”

So is there really a difference between organically grown food and conventionally grown food? And if there is, is it worth the price difference? As it turns out, there are no clear-cut answers.

What does “organic” mean in theory?

The term “organic” has to do with the methods used to grow and process agricultural products – fruits, vegetables, grains, meats, and dairy products. Producers of organically grown foodstuffs say that their methods are more ecological, in that they offer better water and soil conservation, and reduce pollution. One of the main requirements for a food to be labeled “organic” is that it is grown or raised without the use of chemical fertilizers to promote plant grown, synthetic insecticides to reduce pests on plants, synthetic herbicides to manage weeds, or (in livestock) without the use of antibiotics, medications, and growth hormones. “Organically raised” animals are fed organically grown feed, and are often given “free range” access to the outdoors.

The purpose of all of this is to prevent these chemicals and additives from seeping into the food, and thus eventually into the bodies of the people who eat those foods. Proponents of organic farming also claim that their methods allow the development of more nutrients in the soil, and thus should theoretically increase the nutritional content of organically grown foods.

Does science verify that organically grown foods are higher in nutrients?

The answer to this is both yes and no, depending on the studies. In a 2010 study conducted at Washington State University, organically grown strawberries were found to have more vitamin C and antioxidants than strawberries raised conventionally. A study at the University of Barcelona in Spain came to similar conclusions, finding higher levels of polyphenols (a type of antioxidant) in organic tomatoes than in conventionally grown tomatoes.

However, in a meta-analysis of over 237 studies done on organic vs. conventional foods conducted at Stanford University, researchers concluded that the organic foods were no higher in nutrient values than their non-organic counterparts.

When it comes to the presence of pesticide residue, organic produce definitely has lower levels than conventionally grown produce. At the same time, almost all produce sold in U.S. supermarkets contains levels of pesticide residue low enough to be considered safe by the Environmental Protection Agency. So the science on the question of whether organic is better is far from definitive.

How do you identify organic produce in markets?

In the United States, to carry a seal that certifies the food as “USDA Organic,” single-ingredient foods such as vegetables, fruits, or eggs must have been certified by the Department of Agriculture to be 100% organic. For a packaged or prepared multi-ingredient food product to carry this seal, it must contain at least 95% organically grown ingredients. Products that contain a minimum of 70% organic ingredients cannot bear the USDA seal but can advertize themselves on their labels as having been “made from organic ingredients.”

You may see many foods labeled or advertised as “natural.” This does not mean that they are organic, or that they have been certified organic by the USDA. The same applies to products labeled “free range” or “hormone-free.” They may be, but they have not been certified as such by the USDA. Also, producers who sell less than $5000 per year of their products are exempt from the USDA regulations, and may label their products as organic without having them certified.

The bottom line seems to be that the question of whether organic foods are better, safer, or more nutritious than conventional foods is far from settled. As with the selection of any foods, you have to weigh the pros and cons and decide for yourself which ones seem to be a better choice for you and your family.

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Juliette Siegfried, MPH

Juliette Siegfried, MPH, has been involved in health communications since 1991. Shortly after obtaining her Master of Public Health degree, she began her career at the National Institutes of Health in Bethesda, Maryland. Juliette now lives in Europe, where she launched ServingMed(.)com, a small medical writing and editing business for health professionals all over the world.

Juliette's resume, facebook: juliette.siegfriedmph, linkedin: juliettes, (+31) 683 673 767

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