Vexing Vocabulary: Organic

Pittsburgh Dietitian Blog Posts
September 7, 2017

By Rachel Duncan

In this edition of the Vexing Vocabulary blog series, we want to explore another commonly misunderstood nutrition buzz word: organic. We see it popping up in grocery stores more than ever before, but what exactly does “organic” mean?It may be easiest to start with defining the non-organic food that we commonly consume. “Conventional” foods are what you could consider the opposite of organic. These may be grown using pesticides, synthetic or chemical fertilizers, herbicides, and insecticides to maximize the yield of the crop. The use of these technologies has been essential in the development of our agricultural system. It is important to know that the use of these conventional means of food production do not make foods unhealthy or unsafe for consumption. Rinsing and washing produce does not entirely eliminate pesticides, but can greatly reduce it. There is no conclusive research that pesticide, herbicide, or insecticide use are unsafe in the production of food.In contrast to conventional food, organic food has limits on the technologies that can be used in production. Organic produce started being labeled as such in 1990, but there was no official definition of what classified the food as organic until the early 2000’s. Currently, of all of the food marketing terms, “organic” does have a legal definition and meaning. Before a farm or manufacturer can market their products as organic, a government certified inspector must confirm that the USDA standards are met in production. “Organic” means different things based on the food item. In the following paragraphs, we will define and provide examples of organic produce, meat, and dairy.Produce:Organic produce does not use pesticides in production. This means that any weeds are controlled by natural means, such as crop rotation, hand weeding, mulching, and tilling). Insecticides are also prohibited in organic food production, so natural methods of insect control are utilized (birds, traps, etc.). No fertilizers can be used in crop production that contain synthetic ingredients or sewage sludge, bioengineering, or ionizing radiation.Meat and dairy:No antibiotics or growth hormones were added to the food products that were fed to the animals, meaning that the livestock are also eating organic feed. In conventional meat and dairy production, livestock may be given antibiotics and other medications to keep them healthy, but this is not allowed in organic production. Organic livestock must also be raised in living conditions that promote their natural behaviors, such as grazing on pastures. This practice has been shown to contribute to the fatty acid content of meats, and is beneficial to the health of the animal.Processed foods:There are no artificial coloring, flavoring, preservatives, or sweeteners in organic food products. Organically processed foods must have organic ingredients, with several minor exceptions.  Examples of this would include enzymes in yogurts, pectin used as a binding agent in jams, and baking soda in baked goods.

Levels of Organic Labeling

How can you identify what foods are organic? The USDA enforces the labeling of organic foods. The Organic Foods Production Act requires the USDA to hold nationwide standards for organic agricultural products so the consumer is aware of what they are purchasing. There are four levels of organic labeling that you will see in grocery stores:100% organic:All ingredients of the finished product are certified 100% organic. These products can be labeled with the USDA Certified Organic Food label.

Organic Label

Organic: 95% of the ingredients of the finished product meet the organic criteria. These products can also be labeled with the USDA Certified Organic Food label shown above.Made with organic ingredients:70% of the ingredients of the finished product meet the organic criteria. The USDA Organic seal may not be used on the labeling of these products, but “Made with organic ingredients” may appear on the food label.Specific organic ingredients: This claim could be made on the food label of a multi-ingredient food product with less than 70% of its ingredients meeting the organic criteria. They may not display the USDA Organic seal, but they may list the organic ingredients that were used in the production.

The “Clean Fifteen” and “Dirty Dozen”

If you are interested in buying organic produce but have limited availability of organically grown fruits and vegetables, or are trying to keep an eye on cost, this can be a helpful tip!  The “Clean Fifteen” and “Dirty Dozen” can help you decide what produce is smart to buy organic versus conventional. The “Clean Fifteen” listed below on the left are found to have lower levels of pesticide residue than the “Dirty Dozen” listed to the right. If you are aiming to reduce pesticide residue in your diet, it may be helpful to purchase fruits and vegetables on the “Dirty Dozen” list that have been grown organically.

        Clean Fifteen

  1. Sweet potatoes
  2. Cauliflower
  3. Cantaloupe
  4. Grapefruit
  5. Eggplant
  6. Kiwi
  7. Papaya
  8. Mangoes
  9. Asparagus
  10. Onions
  11. Sweet peas
  12. Cabbage
  13. Pineapples
  14. Sweet corn
  15. Avocados

Dirty Dozen

  1. Apples
  2. Strawberries
  3. Grapes
  4. Celery
  5. Peaches
  6. Spinach
  7. Sweet bell peppers
  8. Nectarines
  9. Cucumbers
  10. Cherry tomatoes
  11. Snap peas
  12. Potatoes

A Final Thought

At this time there is no conclusive research that organic food items have any more health benefits than their conventionally produced counterparts. It’s important to know that the organic label does not inherently make a food “healthier.” With that being said, if you want to shop organic, we encourage and support you in doing so! There are environmental benefits associated with organic farming practice, including but not limited to:

  • Reduced land mass allocated for corn* and soy production (a majority of corn grown in the U.S. is grown to feed livestock, and most livestock do not naturally consume corn).
  • Improved fatty acid profile of meats (particularly with beef and eggs animals that consume their natural diet digest better, better utilize nutrients, more naturally partition nutrients, and as a result are healthier. Fat content in grass-fed beef is naturally lower and contains fats that are easier to breakdown. Free range organic eggs contain significantly more omega-3 fatty acids in the yolk of the egg.) For more information on this topic, look for our upcoming blog on grass fed, cage free, and wild caught!
  • Improved quality of life for the animals being raised
  • Improved allocation of resources to local consumers (reduced carbon footprint)

* Corn is a very demanding crop and is known for stripping nutrients from soil, depleting it over time, and reducing yield of other crops. There is evidence that the organic farming method which feeds livestock their natural diet of grass in pastures leads to leaner animals, increased availability of land mass for other farming practice, and an improved impact on the nutrient contents of the soil.You may have noticed that organic food products are more expensive than their conventional counterparts. This is because the yield of organic food is typically lower, and more labor, time and money are invested into the production. If you are interested in buying organic foods, there are some ways to offset the higher prices. Shopping in season is an effective way to save money on organic produce. Fruits and vegetables that are in season are less expensive and fresher! It is also a good idea to shop around and compare prices of organic items. Taking advantage of local farmer’s markets is a great way to eat organic products and to support your community.


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