Is Organic Always Better?

The organic food market is rapidly growing. People consider buying organic products for higher nutritional quality and lower chemicals. Still, organic foods are generally more expensive than their conventional equivalent. If you wonder whether organic foods are worth paying more, read more to learn about organic certification, labels, nutritional comparisons, and environmental and economic impacts.

Key takeaways:

What is organic?

Organic is a term used to define agricultural products produced according to the standards regulated by the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA). Thus, the USDA National Organic Program (NOP) certification is required for organic products.

Organic products have to be made without using any prohibited or excluded practices, like genetic engineering. Also, they have to be made with only approved materials.

The goal of producing organic food is to reduce the amount of harmful substances found in food, including pesticides, fertilizers, and their metabolites.

Understanding organic labels

Various organic labels, like "100% Organic," "Organic," and "Made with organic __," are displayed on products. It is important to comprehend organic labels in order to make informed decisions about the foods you purchase, as they all have specific requirements to meet.

100% organicProducts containing 100% organic ingredients (salt and water content do not count)
OrganicProducts containing 95% organic ingredients (salt and water content do not count)
Made with organic __Products containing 70% organically produced ingredients (salt and water content do not count)

Organic vs. conventional foods

The main comparisons between conventional and organic food are based on health, environmental, and financial effects.

Difference in nutritional content

It is common to see organic food promoted as having a better nutritional profile than conventional food.

A group of researchers investigated the nutritional difference between organic and conventional food products sold in Italy. They compared the nutritional quality of 569 pairs of prepacked products from 29 different foods, including dairy, fruits, vegetables, legumes, oils, cereals, bread, bread substitutes, and juices. The results concluded that the majority of organic and conventional foods showed no significant difference regarding nutritional profile.

A meta-analysis showed that organic dairy products contained higher levels of protein, alpha-linolenic acid, and total omega-3 fatty acids. Researchers hypothesized that the difference between organic and conventional dairy production may result from feeding regimens.

While some studies suggest that organic foods may have a slightly better nutritional profile for certain nutrients, the overall differences between organic and conventional foods can be nuanced and vary by crop and farming practices.

The use of pesticide and synthetic fertilizers

Organic foods are advertised to contain lower levels of toxic substances such as heavy metals, pesticide residues, and synthetic fertilizers. Chemicals called pesticides are frequently applied in agricultural settings to minimize yield loss. They help control or eliminate pests, including rodents, insects, weeds, bacteria, mold, and fungus.

Foodborne pesticide residue limits were established by the EPA. If a pesticide's concentration stays below tolerance—that is, the maximum amount that a pesticide can have in or on food—then the pesticide levels in that food are deemed safe. In non-US countries, tolerances are also known as maximum residue limits, or MRLs.

The quantity or concentration of a single pesticide in a sample of soil, water, food, or air is referred to as the "individual pesticide concentration."

According to surveys conducted by the US Department of Agriculture (USDA) and the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA), the majority of foods have individual pesticide levels that are lower than the MRLs.

The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) is in charge of making sure pesticide use adheres to safety regulations. The organization does this by periodically reviewing the safety requirements for the use of pesticides. This entails banning pesticides that pose a high risk, pulling products off the market in response to cases of pesticide poisoning, keeping an eye on the amount and frequency of pesticide applications, and monitoring residue levels. All of these efforts have collectively contributed to a reduction in pesticide-related risks since 1996.

According to some researchers, compared to previous years, pesticide use was significantly reduced and under control. On the other hand, some draw attention to the paucity of research conducted on pesticide formulations or combinations. They said that eating an organic diet can help lessen the effects of low-level pesticide residue exposure, which can pose health risks over time. Yet uncertainty remains.

Environmental impact

Products that are organic are seen as more environmentally friendly. The Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) claims that because organic farming avoids pest-related issues and soil fertility issues, it has a medium- to long-term positive environmental impact.

Techniques used in organic agriculture, such as intercropping and crop tolerance, contribute to increased biodiversity and soil quality.

Using organic fertilizers (compost and animal dung) rather than chemical ones (pesticides and synthetic fertilizers) also lessens groundwater pollution.

Raising crops organically can boost soil carbon uptake. If the soil holds onto more organic carbon, it can help agriculture reduce the impacts of climate change.

However, because organic farming yields 20–50% less, it requires more land to meet demand. Increased land use can result in deforestation and disturbances in other ecosystems.

Economic considerations

Economic considerations influence people's dietary choices and consumption patterns.

Generally, certified organic foods have higher prices than conventional foods because of the following:

  • Limited supply and high demand. Organic foods are in high demand, but their supply is often limited. This means that not enough organic products are available to meet consumer demand.
  • Higher production costs. More labor goes into producing organic foods. Also, organic foods have greater diversity, so taking advantage of the cost-saving benefits that typically come with large-scale production becomes difficult.
  • Costly post-harvest handling. Organic produce should be separated from conventional produce, which increases the cost of processing and transportation.

Due to technological advancements, organic foods are likely to be more affordable in the future. Also, potential economic benefits should be considered. Organic produce may help protect the environment by reducing pollution-related costs of health risks and associated medical costs.

In conclusion, eating organic food can be better for the environment than eating conventional food. Nonetheless, the majority of research indicates that only minor changes in nutritional quality are possible, and the majority of conventional foods have pesticide levels below those established by regulatory sources. It is easier to make the best nutritional decisions when you are aware of the benefits and drawbacks of conventional and organic food.

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