USDA Organic: What’s In The Label?
USDA-certified organic foods are grown and processed according to federal guidelines that regulate growth practices including animal welfare, environmental impact (like soil quality and pest/weed control), and the use of additives like hormones and antibiotics.
For food to receive the organic label, companies must use agricultural production practices that “foster resource cycling, promote ecological balance, maintain and improve soil and water quality, minimize the use of synthetic materials, and conserve biodiversity.” According to the USDA, products must be:
- Overseen by a USDA NOP-authorized certifying agent, following all USDA organic regulations.
- Produced without prohibited methods, (like some forms of genetic engineering and sewage sludge).
- Produced using allowed substances.
Organic food is more than just a lifestyle, it’s an industry. But the organic food market is misleading due to flawed regulatory systems. Labels become confusing with variations like:
- “Made With Organic….” (contains at least 70 percent organically produced ingredients )
- “Organic” (contains a minimum of 95 percent organic ingredients)
- “100% Organic” (contains 100 percent organic ingredients )
And last, limited scientific evidence displaying known risks of conventionally grown or raised food. Let’s dive deeper.
Worth The Investment? The “Dirty Dozen” and “Clean Fifteen”
The Environmental Working Group (EWG) is an activist group that releases an annual list of the ‘“Dirty Dozen,” which includes 12 different fruits and veggies supposedly contaminated with the highest degree of pesticides. A newer addition to the list is the “Clean Fifteen,” which includes 15 fruits and veggies that are supposedly less contaminated with pesticides. These lists are created using information from the USDA’s Pesticide Data Program and are updated annually.
But according to The American Counsel for Science and Health, the EWG largely fabricates its findings to fear-monger consumers with phrases like “toxic” and “cancer-causing” chemicals. Rather than supporting consumer health, the purpose seems more to be an “effort to drive people toward purchasing organic produce and benefiting their stakeholders.” Spoiler: the EWG is largely funded by organic farms.
Unravel the science
The claim that organic food is healthier when compared to conventionally-grown food is simply not supported by scientific evidence. Here’s a 2010 review for your reference and a 2012 review that found no significant differences in the health benefits between organic and conventional foods.
When it comes to the safety of our food supply, regulation is important, and in the United States, it’s overseen by The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). The EPA sets limits (known as “tolerance” levels) to determine safe amounts of additives that can be used both directly (in human food like produce) and indirectly (in animal feed for livestock).
Contrary to popular belief, pesticide residue on conventionally-grown produce is significantly lower than the tolerance levels set forth by the EPA. This is the point of EPA regulation: to ensure the safe consumption of our food supply. But if you’re still looking to justify your financial savings on conventionally-grown produce, check out this great website. You can calculate how many servings of any fruit or vegetable it would take to meet your daily exposure limit. Fun fact: my limit for apples is 850 in one day!!
But what about glyphosate?
There is a ton of fear-mongering around glyphosate (AKA the weed killer roundup, which is used in the conventional farming of wheat) and most of it spews from misinformation. Recent studies show that glyphosate “undergoes little metabolism in the human body.” So, if consumed glyphosate is excreted mostly unchanged in feces and urine and doesn’t accumulate in the body. Much of the research, especially from the EWG, is heavily biased and used to perpetuate fears against processed foods like breakfast cereals. It’s important to know that experts have debunked the EWG’s claims.
But isn’t organic safer for the environment?
Not always. Just because a pesticide is considered “natural” (in comparison to synthetic) doesn’t mean it’s safer for the environment. But let me back up.
The major difference between produce that is organically grown and those conventionally grown is in the amounts of “natural” (versus synthetic pesticides and herbicides) used in production. Quick side note: herbicides are pesticides.
99.9% of pesticides (yes, synthetic) used in food are produced from plants, and get this: organic produce is ALSO grown using these pesticides, both “natural” and synthetic. While “there are some organic pesticides that are very safe and have a low impact on the environment, there are also some synthetic pesticides that are safe and environmentally friendly.” Also, pesticides used in organic farming are sometimes less effective than synthetic alternatives. This can mean organic farmers have to use more pesticides at a higher cost. In fact, some synthetic pesticides are more sustainable, and organic farming may even be worse for the environment long term.
Hormones and antibiotics in meat… no thanks!
Myth bust: the use of antibiotics in our food supply is not a bad thing. The FDA allows for the use of antibiotics in animal farming to help treat and prevent the spread of sickness and disease among animals. A look into more than 150 studies has helped the World Health Organization set clear safety guidelines on the use of antibiotics in food-producing animals. Furthermore, strict rules must be followed to ensure that no antibiotic residue exists in the food prior to the point of production (read more here.)
In regard to hormones, administration in poultry and pork has been banned since the 1950s. So the “Raised without Hormones” label is actually just a marketing tactic. Interestingly, the hormones given to beef cattle increase growth and reduce the total amount of feed needed. This may even help to reduce greenhouse emissions by nearly 5%!
Key takeaways: Organic Food versus Conventional
In 2015, the CDC found that only 9% of adults ate the recommended amount of vegetables and only 12% of adults eat the recommended amount of fruit. What’s worse is that a 2016 study found that while low-income shoppers “preferred organic produce because it’s advertised to be healthier and safer, the higher cost made them less likely to purchase organic fruits and vegetables…. and unlikely to purchase any fruits and vegetables.”
We know the benefits of eating more fruits and veggies are vast. And whether conventionally grown or organic, those benefits grossly outweigh any supposed risks from pesticides and additives.
From a nutrition perspective, organic produce is not healthier, and conventionally grown produce is heavily regulated. So if you’re debating the steeper price tag for organic produce, remember that conventionally-grown produce should not be avoided because of fear-mongering media tactics.
Need another resource? Food Science Babe is incredibly helpful when attempting to unravel the misinformation behind food claims. Click here to learn more from her column.