First off, let’s clear up what it means to ‘buy organic.’
With so many health terms floating around, it can be hard to keep them all straight! According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA):
Organic is a labeling term that indicates that the food or other agricultural product has been produced through approved methods. These methods integrate cultural, biological, and mechanical practices that foster cycling of resources, promote ecological balance, and conserve biodiversity. Synthetic fertilizers, sewage sludge, irradiation, and genetic engineering may not be used.
Long story short
Buying ‘organic’ means buying food in its most natural state. In other words: unless you’re planning on raising and picking the fruit yourself, USDA certified organic strawberries are the most natural strawberries you’re going to find.
Short story long
Curious about the nitty gritty of what ‘may not be used’? Look no further than the U.S. Code of Federal Regulations:
- SYNTHETIC FERTILIZERS: ‘Synthetic’ refers to a substance that is formulated or manufactured by a chemical process or by a process that chemically changes a substance extracted from naturally occurring plant, animal, or mineral sources, except that such term shall not apply to substances created by naturally occurring biological processes. ‘Fertilizer’ is understood as a single or blended substance containing one or more recognized plant nutrient(s) which is used primarily for its plant nutrient content and which is designed for use or claimed to have value in promoting plant growth.
- SEWAGE SLUDGE: A solid, semisolid, or liquid residue generated during the treatment of domestic sewage in a treatment works. Sewage sludge includes but is not limited to: domestic septage; scum or solids removed in primary, secondary, or advanced wastewater treatment processes; and a material derived from sewage sludge. Sewage sludge does not include ash generated during the firing of sewage sludge in a sewage sludge incinerator or grit and screenings generated during preliminary treatment of domestic sewage in a treatment works.
- IRRADIATION and GENETIC ENGINEERING: These two terms are not included in the U.S. Code of Federal Regulations, but commonly understood to mean 1) exposure to radiation and, 2) the manipulation of an organism’s genome using biotechnology. (Don’t thank me, thank Wikipedia!)
Anyone else concerned that we need a rule about not including sewage sludge?
This is going to sound really nerdy: but once you start reading through the USDA website, it’s hard to stop! I’ll spare you the details, but if you’re interested in all things organic, consider checking out these links:
So when should I buy organic?
After all this reading, I’m kind of inclined to say: always! But, let’s be real. Organic food can be expensive and, depending where you live, also a little hard to find. That’s where the Environmental Workers Group (EWG) Dirty Dozen list comes in. (Shout out to guest blogger, Jessica Grote, for suggesting this site!) According to the EWG, you can significantly decrease your pesticide exposure by avoiding the following twelve foods. So if you’re going to buy organic, these are the fruits and veggies you need to focus on:
Sweet bell peppers
Note: Green beans and kale made honorary mention!
To learn more (and review a list of the fifteen cleanest foods!) visit the EWG website.
Ok, how do I find this stuff?
Just look for the USDA organic seal (above). If you see one, that means the food has 95% or more organic content. And keep your eye out for foods labeled ‘natural.’ While they’re definitely a step in the right direction, foods with ‘natural’ labels aren’t necessarily organic:
As required by USDA, meat, poultry, and egg products labeled as “natural” must be minimally processed and contain no artificial ingredients. However, the natural label does not include any standards regarding farm practices and only applies to processing of meat and egg products. There are no standards or regulations for the labeling of natural food products if they do not contain meat or eggs.
U.S. Federal Government (2013 March 7). Title 7: Agriculture, Part 205, Subpart A. Electronic Code of Federal Regulations. Retrieved: March 11, 2013.
USDA. (2012 October 17). National Organic Program: Consumers. Retrieved: March 11, 2013.
Wikipedia. Irradiation. Retrieved: March 11, 2013.
Wikipedia. Genetic Engineering. Retrieved: March 11, 2013.
Jess this post was perfect! I just started reading about organic foods and was curious about what I actually NEEDED to buy organic!! I have been buying organic sweet potatoes, apples, lettuce, and celery bc that’s really all the grocery store closest to me offers that I like since I’m the plainest eater ever (which I’m working on!). I read (in the Skinny Bitch lol so I’m not sure how accurate their findings are!?) that USDA organic isn’t necessarily the best guideline to follow… Apparently there are other groups that have stricter rules and are really the only organic foods that’s are organic!? Have you heard that?
Jessica Walters says
There’s def other groups that have stricter guidelines (because the USDA allows 5% of non-organic content in each of their ‘organic’ foods) – however, you can’t legally stamp the word ‘organic’ on any food in the US without at least meeting the USDA’s minimum requirements. Sometimes getting USDA certified can be pricey, so there’s other groups that have emerged (labeling things ‘natural’, etc.) – I put that warning about ‘natural’ foods at the end, but not all of them are non-organic (some are just from smaller farms, trying to avoid the big cost). You might want to look into Certified Naturally Grown. (And by the way: where did my friend go that used to eat McDonald’s at track meets?! hahaha)
I love all of this good information. Thanks
Jessica Walters says
You’re welcome, Celeste! Glad you enjoyed :)
Danica @ It's Progression says
This is a great post, Jessica! I slowly started buying more and more food items organic over the past couple of years, and almost everything I buy now is organic. I completely believe in the importance of eating as cleanly as possible, and I think that it really doesn’t cost much more–we only spend about $80 a week on food and rarely ever eat out!
Jessica Walters says
$80 – that’s really good! I’ve been eating non-processed foods (i.e., nothing in the middle of the grocery store!) for a while now, but am just starting to get more into the organic world :) Eating clean is def the way to go! :)
I like the idea of organic but feel it has been watered down to allow large companies to profit and to hurt the smaller producer. I recently read Michael Pollan’s “In Defense of Food: An Eater’s Manifesto” It was enlightening.
Jessica Walters says
I haven’t read Pollan’s work, but when I was researching this post I came across a couple articles that echoed your sentiments. There’s definitely some politics involved… I’ll have to check out that manifesto!