Organic foods aren’t just for granola-crunching hippies anymore. These days, they’re growing in popularity and availability worldwide. But this raises the question: With so many options available, which foods are worth buying organic?
Food for Thought — The Need to Know
Organic foods are often associated with fewer synthetic fertilizers and pesticides, but the USDA has created plenty of other requirements to make the grade as a certified organic food. In the case of livestock, animal health and welfare play a role. The livestock must also be raised without hormones or antibiotics and fed an organic diet. Organic crops can’t be grown with synthetic fertilizers, certain prohibited pesticides, sewage sludge, or genetically modified organisms (GMO). And multi-ingredient foods (think packaged foods in the center of the grocery store) must include 95 percent organic ingredients to earn the organic label. But all that organic TLC costs extra. For farmers, organic foods are more expensive to grow, meaning higher prices may be unavoidable. To avoid the premium price tag (and getting ripped off!), there are a few other key words to look for:
Natural: This product label is not synonymous with organic. “Natural” means that the product doesn’t contain any artificial ingredients or colors. These products are also minimally processed, but the label must include a more detailed explanation of what exactly makes it natural.
Free-Range: “Free-range” or “free-roaming” means that the animals have access to the outdoors, though there is no standard for how much access they have. Consider springing for organic rather than free-range if animal welfare is a primary concern.
Cage-Free: Some egg producers house hens in cage-free environments. These systems are generally considered to offer better conditions for the animals, though they’re still far from cruelty-free. There’s no evidence the nutritional quality of the eggs differs based on caged and cage-free systems.
Antibiotic-free: Antibiotic-resistant bacteria can result from the overuse of antibiotics, and those bacteria can be passed from animals to humans through the food chain. Farms that use fewer antibiotics have been shown to have fewer resistant bugs, which may make their products safer when they reach the table (though studies are still preliminary).
Hormone-free: The presence of hormones is one of the most significant differences between conventional and organic milk products, even if there still isn’t absolute evidence that hormones are dangerous. For buyers that choose to avoid hormones, hormone-free (rather than all-out organic) dairy products offer the same benefits at a potentially lower price.
Transitional: Going organic ain’t cheap or quick (for the farmer!), and the easiest way to help a farm make the switch is buying transitional food. “Transitional” means that the product has been cultivated according to organic standards, but the soil and farm conditions haven’t yet completely met organic standards or the farm’s organic status is pending.
Getting Your Green On — Your Action Plan
Farmers that cultivate organic foods must use methods that promote biodiversity, cycle resources, and generally look after Mother Nature  But what the heck does that mean? Greatist digs in to find out what these extra requirements do for nutritional value:
Meats: If meat is what’s for dinner, the environment, health, and animal welfare may all influence the decision to go organic. Three things make organic livestock unique: They’re raised without antibiotics and hormones, they’re given proper veterinary treatment whenever necessary, and they have access to the outdoors, sunlight, and clean water— all of which affect each type of meat differently.
Beef: For the most part, scientists agree that the drugs given to animals carry over to the meat on that dinner table, but they can’t seem to agree on whether beef growth hormones— used to make animals grow larger faster— pose a health risk to humans . And while the European Food Safety Authority has concluded that hormones may be linked to certain cancers and early puberty, U.S. agencies maintain that they’re perfectly safe. Cows’ diets may also affect the quality of meat. While organic cows must graze in pastures for at least 120 days per year, conventional cattle are typically cooped up indoors without grazing time. Some studies show that pasture feeding can result in leaner meat with higher concentrations of heart-healthy omega-3 fatty acids .
Chicken: The jury (read: scientists) is out as to whether organic poultry beats conventional in terms of nutrition. But the limitation on antibiotics could result in fewer antibiotic-resistant strains of bacteria. Reducing antibiotics may be better for the environment, too, as antibiotic-laden run-off could be poisonous to wildlife and could even make its way into the water supply. On the other hand, allowing chickens more access to the outdoors— as is the case with organic poultry— could actually increase the risk of infection and contamination . Given the conflicting results, the choice between conventional and organic chicken comes down to a matter of preference— if animal welfare and the environment are a priority, organic poultry may be worth the splurge.
Pork: One significant difference between organic and conventional pork is that organic, cured pork products don’t include chemical preservatives like nitrate and nitrite. These preservatives have occasionally been linked to gastric cancer and birth defects, though there is not enough data to support a causal relationship  . Instead, organic cured meats are preserved with vegetable derivatives that contain natural nitrate. However, the veggies don’t preserve quite as well as the chemical versions, so food safety is especially important when cooking up organic bacon, sausage, and deli meats.
Fruits and Vegetables: Compared to conventional produce, organic fruits and veggies are grown with far fewer pesticides, which have been associated with developmental neurological issues among children . Research has also suggested organic food may be more nutritious— with fewer nitrates and more vitamin C, for example— though these studies are far from conclusive  . Peeling fruits and vegetables or removing outer layers of leafy greens is also a great way to cut back on pesticide intake. That said, certain fruits and veggies might be more important to buy organic than others. Enter, the Environmental Working Group’s (EWG) Clean 15 and Dirty Dozen. The Dirty Dozen generally have the most pesticide residues when grown conventionally because they’re more prone to pesky bugs. Purchase these fruits and veggies organic whenever possible to avoid the potentially harmful effects of pesticides :
Dairy and Eggs: Organic dairy and meat animals are afforded the same creature comforts, and the same regulations apply to their diet and medical treatment.
Milk: As with beef cattle, hormones —used to increase milk production— are a hotly-debated issue with dairy cows, too. One study found that organic milk has significantly higher concentrations of the hormones estradiol and progesterone which may help prevent the potentially breast cancer-causing effects of milk’s Vitamin D, but had a lower concentration of IGF-1, the hormone that triggers the onset of puberty  . Organic milk may also be healthier thanks to a higher concentration of beneficial fatty acids . However, one study suggests organic milk could be lower in iodine, a necessary nutrient . Further confusing matters, a separate study found that organic and conventional milk were almost identical in protein and bacteria count, making the still-controversial hormone debate the deciding factor between the two .
Eggs: While some say organic eggs are no higher in quality than conventional eggs, opponents argue that organic eggs are still worth the splurge because they can be more nutritious and free of dangerous chemicals and antibiotics. One study found that, when given access to a grazing pasture, chickens produced eggs with more omega-3 fatty acids, vitamin A, and vitamin E. On the other hand, a study based in Taiwan found that chickens permitted access to the outdoors actually produced eggs with significantly higher concentrations of pollutants. The pollutants found in those eggs were prevalent in Taiwan, though, so this study’s findings may not apply overseas. As with other dairy and meat items, antibiotics fed to chickens could crop up in the end product (under USDA-established tolerable levels, of course), so skip conventional eggs if this is a personal concern.
Photo by Marissa Angell