What Does "Organic" Mean?

One of the biggest debates in nutrition and healthcare today revolves around organic foods.  On one side we have people who argue that organic foods are no better than “regular” food and that the benefits of eating organic food have not been proven in research.  The others argue that eating organic food is critical to our long-term health as chronic exposure to pesticides and other environmental toxins found in our food can accumulate and contribute to poor health.  But what does “organic” actually mean?

For this post, I will mostly be referring to the practice of organic farming for fruits and vegetables.  At a later date, I will write about nutritional differences in organic foods versus non-organic foods, organic meat, as well as other debates surrounding organically grown food.  

“Organic” refers to the way crops are grown and the type of chemicals, herbicides, insecticides, and fertilizers used to promote plant growth and deter pests and disease.  According to the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA), “organic farming systems rely on ecologically based practices such as cultural and biological pest management, exclusion of all synthetic chemicals, antibiotics, and hormones in crop and livestock production.”  Here are some key differences between organic and conventional farming of fruits and vegetables:
  •  Fertilizers
    • Conventional: uses chemical fertilizers
    • Organic: uses natural fertilizers (manure, compost)
  •  Insecticides:  
    • Conventional: uses chemical insecticides
    • Organic: attempts to use beneficial insects and birds or disrupt mating to help reduce pests and disease
  • Weed management
    • Conventional: typically uses herbicides to manage weeds
    • Organic: utilizes crop rotation, mulch, or hand weeding methods
As you can see, organic farming generally uses more "natural" practices and consequently eliminates the potential for disease caused by accumulation of chemicals from fertilizers, insecticides, and herbicides.  It is important to remember that there is no universal governing body that regulates the organic food industry.  Many countries such as Canada do not even have their own certification processes or national standards, while other countries such as the United States do (USDA).  Therefore, it can be somewhat confusing when buying foods that companies call “organic”. This leaves many people wondering if it is worth spending extra money to buy "organic" fruits and vegetables.

I personally believe that generally speaking, organic produce is better than conventionally farmed produce.  For me, the less exposure I have to chemicals (regardless of how little at a time), the better.  However, I have realized that buying organic fruits and vegetables can cost quite a bit more.  The Environmental Working Group (EWG) provides a great resource for those thinking about incorporating organic foods.  The “Dirty Dozen” is a list of the 12 most important fruits and vegetables to buy organic, while the “Clean 15” is a list of the 15 types of produce that are lowest in pesticides, and therefore you can more safely choose the non-organic option.

Here are some of the “Dirty Dozen”:
  • Apples
  • Celery
  • Strawberries, blueberries
  • Peaches, imported nectarines
  • Spinach, lettuce, kale, collard greens
  • Imported grapes
  • Sweet bell peppers
  • Potatoes
And some of the "Clean 15":
  • Onions
  • Sweet corn
  • Pineapples, mango, kiwi, grapefruit
  • Cantaloupe, watermelon
  • Avocado
  • Asparagus
  • Sweet peas
  • Eggplant
  • Cabbage
  • Sweet potatoes
  • Mushrooms

Some important things to remember:
  • If you want to avoid pesticide exposure, try eating the majority of your produce from the "Clean 15".  There are a lot of great fruits and vegetables in this list (including avocados!).
  • Another way to offset the cost of organic produce is to buy when the particular fruit or vegetable is in season, or when it is on sale or comparable to the price of its conventionally grown counterpart.
  • The fruits and vegetables highest in pesticides are generally those where there is not a thicker outer layer to protect it from the environment, pests, and chemicals.
  • Choose locally grown fruits and vegetables over imported produce.  This decreases the environmental impact involved in importing food (ie. fuel from trucks, planes, etc) and also supports local farmers. 
  • If you are debating between eating non-organic fruit and no fruit at all, always choose the non-organic fruit.  The negative health outcomes of eating no fruit at all far outweigh the potential risks of pesticides in “regular” or conventionally grown fruit.
Stay tuned for more on organic vs. conventionally grown food!

All the best,

Dr. Cho, ND is a naturopathic doctor based in Pickering, Ontario and Richmond Hill, Ontario.  She maintains a private practice focused in pain management and sports nutrition, in addition to a general family practice at Durham Natural Health Centre.  To learn more about Dr. Cho, book a complimentary 15 minute consult by clicking here.  Not in the Durham Region?  Contact her through AnAvocadoADay@gmail.com to learn about more options.


Kim Budziak said...

One of the big reasons for also eating organic is because of bees and colony collapse disorder. If you watch the "Queen of the Sun" documentary, you see that bees who try and pollinate organic crops are fine, while bees who pollinate conventional crops become stunned and disoriented from the chemicals. If we don't have bees, we don't have fruits and vegetables. I only buy organic for this reason and personally I think the cost is worth it!

Great post. :)

Jamie Sims said...

Organic growing practices are also much more sustainable for our ecosystems. Even if the health benefits of eating organic were negligible, which as you point out they are not, the detrimental effects that commercial farming practices have had and continue to have on our environment are reason enough to buy organic produce, meats, and dairy.

Christine Cho said...

Hi Jamie,

Thanks for reading and I appreciate your input!

All the best,

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