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Organic foods have become much more popular in stores across the US. Understanding what makes something “organic” and knowing the benefits will help you make informed choices while you shop.

What Qualifies as Organic?

When a food product is labeled as “organic,” it means that it has been produced using organic farming practices that are regulated and certified by a recognized organic certification body. The specific requirements for organic certification may vary slightly between countries and regions, but the general principles remain consistent.

Organic food products are typically certified by an accredited third-party organization that verifies that the production processes meet the organic standards. Labels such as USDA Organic (United States) indicate that the product has met the relevant organic certification requirements in those regions.

Reduced Pesticide Exposure

Organic farming practices restrict the use of synthetic pesticides, herbicides, and fertilizers. By choosing organic, you can minimize your exposure to potentially harmful chemicals and reduce the risk of health effects associated with pesticide residues.

Reduced Use of Antibiotics

The use of antibiotics in organic farming is strictly monitored. The primary goal of organic agriculture is to promote natural and sustainable practices that minimize the use of synthetic chemicals, including antibiotics.

One of the most significant risks of overusing antibiotics is the development of antibiotic-resistant bacteria. When antibiotics are used frequently or inappropriately, bacteria can adapt and become resistant to the drugs designed to kill them.

No Genetically Modified Organisms (GMOs)

Organic standards prohibit the use of genetically modified organisms (GMOs). By choosing organic, you can avoid consuming foods that have been genetically engineered, and support non-GMO agricultural practices.

It is important to note that organic food can be more expensive compared to conventionally grown options, which may limit accessibility for some individuals. If buying all organic is not feasible, you can prioritize purchasing organic versions of foods that tend to have higher pesticide residue levels, known as the “Dirty Dozen” (e.g., strawberries, spinach, apples), while opting for conventional alternatives for the “Clean Fifteen” (e.g., avocados, onions, sweet corn).

The “Dirty Dozen” is a term used to refer to a list of fruits and vegetables that are identified as having higher levels of pesticide residues when conventionally grown. The list is compiled annually by the Environmental Working Group (EWG), a nonprofit organization that focuses on public health and environmental issues.

The Dirty Dozen list helps consumers make informed decisions about which produce items may be worth buying organic.

The specific fruits and vegetables that make up the Dirty Dozen list can vary from year to year, but here are some examples of produce items that have frequently appeared on the list:

  1. Strawberries
  2. Spinach
  3. Kale
  4. Nectarines
  5. Apples
  6. Grapes
  7. Peaches
  8. Cherries
  9. Pears
  10. Tomatoes
  11. Celery
  12. Potatoes

Higher Nutrient Profile

Some studies suggest that organic crops may have higher levels of certain nutrients compared to conventionally grown crops. While the differences are not always significant, organic farming practices that focus on soil health and biodiversity can contribute to nutrient-rich produce.

Organic fruits, vegetables, and grains often have higher levels of certain nutrients, including vitamins, minerals, and antioxidants. Organic farming practices that prioritize soil health and biodiversity can contribute to richer nutrient content in organic produce.

Environmental Benefits

Organic farming methods prioritize sustainability and aim to minimize the impact on the environment. The environment benefits because organic farming avoids the use of synthetic chemicals, which can harm soil quality, water systems, and wildlife. Organic practices also promote biodiversity and support the long-term health of ecosystems.

Supporting Local and Small-Scale Farmers

Many organic farms are smaller-scale and often locally owned and operated. By choosing organic products, you support these farmers and help sustain local agricultural communities. This contributes to diversified and resilient food systems and helps foster economic vitality in rural areas.

Animal Welfare

Organic animal products, such as meat, dairy, and eggs, are produced according to strict animal welfare standards. Organic livestock are given access to outdoor spaces, receive organic feed, and are not treated with antibiotics or growth hormones.

Ultimately, the decision to buy organic is a personal one based on factors such as health concerns, environmental impact, and personal values. It is recommended to consider a well-rounded approach to nutrition, focusing on a variety of whole foods, regardless of whether they are organic or conventional.