November 10, 2008

Organic Food – Is It the Right Choice?

By Janice Wade-Miller, Extension Specialist, Pinellas County Extension

Organic food makes 2 percent of total food sales worldwide. In the United States, sales in 1997 were $3.6 billion. Sales of organic food has grown since then to $16.9 billion in 2006. Overall, the market has been growing by 20% a year since the 1990’s. Organic food is now available in 73% of conventional food stores and in 20,000 natural food stores.

Are you wondering if the claims that organic food is really better for you and your family’s health and for the environment are true? Have friends and neighbors become true believers in organic food? Have you noticed the cost difference between conventionally grown and certified organic food? How do you know whether organic food is worth the increased price? If you’ve noticed the surge in organic foods now available in your grocery store and these questions have been on your mind, I hope to answer some them here.

Deciding whether to buy organic or locally grown food is a personal choice based on health concerns as well as environmental and social responsibility. Local grocery stores and farmers' markets now stock a much wider variety of fresh fruits and vegetables than ever. Consumers can easily purchase food that is certified United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) organic or locally grown food. But with so many options, how do we choose the best product? Both organic and locally grown foods have their own pros and cons; there is no perfect choice. While both organic and locally grown food can be better than conventionally grown food for the environment and for our health, they also have their own drawbacks. By being aware of where your food comes from and how it is grown, it's easier to decide which type of products to buy and also which are worth the increased price. Keep in mind that produce labeled organic does not guarantee that it was grown locally. On average, fresh produce in the United States travels anywhere from 1,300 to 2,000 miles from the farmer to the consumer -- a process that creates enormous amounts of greenhouse gasses. These food miles partially cancel the benefits of organic farming. On the other hand, locally grown food purchased at a nearby farmers’ market will make a smaller impact on air quality.

Here at the Pinellas County Extension in Largo, we feature our own Market in the Park every Saturday from 9 am to 1 pm starting on November 1st. Market in the Park is more than just a farmer’s market. Each Saturday we will bring together healthy, farm-fresh local produce, delicious gourmet foods, beautiful plants and much, much more. County Extension experts and Master Gardeners will hold educational seminars on gardening, nutrition and cooking. There will be plenty of children’s activities as well. Learn More!

The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) has put in place a set of national standards that food labeled "organic" must meet. Organic food is produced without using most conventional pesticides; fertilizers made with synthetic ingredients or sewage sludge; bioengineering; or ionizing radiation. Before a product can be labeled "organic," a Government-approved certifier inspects the farm where the food is grown to make sure the farmer is following all the rules necessary to meet USDA organic standards. Companies that handle fresh produce or meat or process organic food such as cereals, frozen vegetables or dairy products before they get to your local supermarket or restaurant must be certified, too.

With those assurances in mind, how will you know if organic food is “better” for you and your family? First of all, you should know that the USDA makes no claims that organically produced food is safer or more nutritious than conventionally produced food. Keep in mind that organic is still organic when it comes to nutrition. The U.S. Department of Agriculture organic seal (above) means a food has been grown, harvested and processed according to national organic standards, with restrictions on use of pesticides, hormones and antibiotics. Organic food differs from conventionally produced food in how it is grown, handled, and processed.

To be able to tell organically produced food from conventionally produced food, you must look at package labels and watch for signs in the supermarket. The USDA has developed strict labeling rules to help consumers know the exact organic content of the food they buy. The USDA Organic seal also tells you that a product is at least 95 percent organic. The categories are:

“100% Organic” – must contain only organic ingredients. They may display the USDA seal.
“Organic” – must contain at least 95% organic ingredients. The other 5% (excluding water & salt) must be non-agricultural substances on a USDA-approved list, or non-organically produced products that are not available in organic form. They may also display the USDA seal.
“Made with Organic Ingredients” – processed foods (pasta, cereal, breads, canned goods) must contain at least 70 percent organic ingredients. They may not use the USDA seal. Processed foods that contain less than 70 percent organic ingredients can list them as organic but cannot be labeled “organic”.

Single-ingredient foods
In the produce section of your grocery store, look for the word "organic" and a small sticker version of the USDA Organic seal on the vegetable or piece of fruit. Or the organic seal may appear on the sign above the organic produce display. The word "organic" and the seal may also appear on packages of meat, cartons of milk or eggs, cheese, and other single-ingredient foods.

Foods with more than one ingredient
The sample cereal boxes below show the four labeling categories. From left: a cereal with 100 percent organic ingredients; a cereal with 95-100 percent organic ingredients; a cereal made with at least 70 percent organic ingredients; and a cereal with less than 70 percent organic ingredients. Products with less than 70 percent organic ingredients may list specific organically produced ingredients on the side panel of the package, but may not make any organic claims on the front of the package. Look for the name and address of the Government-approved certifier on all packaged products that contain at least 70 percent organic ingredients. The following illustration shows examples of the labels that may be used on a wide variety of products that use organic ingredients:

And finally, are they worth the price? Here are ways to decide:

Best bets to buying organic: (High levels of pesticides in conventionally grown counterparts)
1. The “Dirty Dozen”: Apples, bell peppers, celery, cherries, imported grapes,
nectarines, peaches, pears, potatoes, raspberries, spinach and strawberries.
2. Beef – to reduce risk of exposure to Mad Cow disease.
3. Poultry, eggs and dairy – to avoid ingesting supplemental hormones & anti-
biotics linked to increased antibacterial resistance.

Marginal benefits to buying organic: (Pesticide residues rarely found on these)
1. Asparagus, avocados, bananas, broccoli, cauliflower, sweet corn, kiwi, mangos, onions, papaya, pineapples and sweet peas.
2. Breads, oils, snack foods, pasta, cereals, canned or dried fruits - lower contaminant levels but these foods offer limited health value compared to produce, meats & dairy.

Don’t bother buying organic:
1. Seafood – no USDA certification process in place yet. As a result, mercury and PCBs can be present and still labeled “organic.” Producers are allowed to make their own organic claims as long as they don’t use ”USDA” or the words, “certified organic.”
2. Cosmetics – Unless they consist of organic agricultural ingredients like aloe vera gel, most are a combination of ingredients. The USDA allows shampoos & lotions to carry an organic label, even when water is the main ingredient.


The Inst. of Food Technologists has issued this Scientific Status Summary to update readers on the organic foods industry.
Journal of Food Science—Vol. 71, Nr. 9, 2006
Organic Foods by Carl K. Winter and Sarah F. Davis

Organic Food Standards and Labels: The Facts (

Organic Produce: Most & Least Commonly Contaminated

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