By: Francesca Singer
As you cruise the aisles of the grocery store, you reach for a box of crackers and then pause. An almost identical box of crackers sits next to it on the shelf, but this one bears the “certified organic” label and costs a buck more. What do you do? Is it irresponsible (to your body, your kids, or your planet) for you go for the cheaper option? Or are you just falling for a good marketing ploy? We’ve all been there.
In the last decade, we've seen an explosion in the volume of organically labeled food. It’s far too easy to find yourself questioning what those labels mean and whether it matters. Everyone wants to make wise food purchases, but no one wants to fall for gimmicks. And the choice between organic and conventional can be dizzying. Knowing a few choice facts can guide you to the promised land of grocery-buying savvy. Here are six common facts and myths about organic food to help you buy smart.
1) Fact: Organic Produce Has More Nutrients
Most of us want to live a healthier lifestyle. Recent studies show that organic produce is higher in some crucial nutrients than its conventional counterpart. Organic dairy has been conclusively shown to be much higher in good fats (omega-3s) and lower in harmful fats than conventional milk. Ditto organic eggs and meat. So, while these items tend to be the priciest in your shopping cart, the organic versions offer more health benefits.
A 2014 study in the British Journal of Nutrition found that organically grown vegetables had significantly higher levels of antioxidants known to lower the risk of cancer and disease. This means it may be worth shelling out a little more for those organic peas, broccoli, peppers, and tomatoes.
2) Myth: Food With the Organic Label is Better For You
There are significant differences in organic labels. Only a label that says “100% Organic” is sure to contain no conventionally grown ingredients. Foods labeled “USDA Organic” are only guaranteed to contain 95 percent organic ingredients. A product labeled “made with organic ingredients” is only required to be 75 percent organic.
In the same vein, nonorganic wheat is almost certainly grown using glyphosate as a weed-killer. A 2018 study found it in a troubling number of cereals intended for children. Sourcing organic wheat and grain products for children, in particular, is a good idea. Nonetheless, an organic doughnut is still a doughnut. Bear in mind that while it may be better for you than a nonorganic doughnut, it still isn’t healthy food.
3) Fact: Organic Foods Contain Fewer Pesticides and Heavy Metals
Organic produce is grown without chemical fertilizers and pesticides that we find in conventional farming. One undeniable effect of organic growing methods is lower levels of these chemicals and heavy metal residues from the soil. This is especially important for pregnant women, babies, and children. Some pesticides have been linked to developmental delays and even ADHD.
4) Myth: All Organic Produce Is Better Than Conventional Produce
Before you decide that organic fruits and vegetables are the only produce worth buying, keep in mind some crops are not heavily reliant on pesticides and fertilizers. There are a dozen fruits and vegetables, known as “the dirty dozen” that are higher in pesticide residue than others. They are apples, celery, cherries, grapes, nectarines, peaches, pears, peppers, potatoes, spinach, strawberries, and tomatoes. If you’re on a tight budget, these are the items that will give you the most organic bang for your buck.
5) Fact: Organic Farming Is Better for Animals
One of the things that make organic meat, dairy, and eggs better for you is the same thing that makes it better for animal welfare: grazing. When animals spend time outdoors eating grass, their meat and products are more nutritious. That's because of the omega-3s that come from grass. Animals in confined conditions, fed a steady diet of grain tend to be far less healthy (and happy.) Free-ranging animals don’t need the antibiotics routinely given to farmed animals.
6) Myth: Organic Farming Is Better for the Planet
This is a bit confusing, but in a nutshell: Organic produce is not always Earth-friendly. To be clear, organic farming isn't as hard on the land as conventional farming. However, if your apples are being transported halfway around the world to get to you, that adds to their carbon footprint. One way around this is to buy fruits and vegetables that are in season and to visit your local farmers market to buy direct. Better yet, trade in some lawn and grow your own garden! Why buy packaged herbs and spices, when you can grow an herb garden in your kitchen? Making an organic pizza can be as easy as snipping a few basil leaves off the plant.
The difference between these facts and fallacies should steer you in the right direction the next time you shop. Sometimes it's worth spending a little more for products that will keep you and the planet healthy.
Francesca is a DIY enthusiast, former farmer and landscape architect who splits her time between Texas and rural France. When not writing or wrangling a toddler, she can be found wielding power tools or working in the garden.