What does “Organic” really mean?

In today’s markets, you see the term “organic” everywhere. But what does “organic” really mean? And is it worth the extra money to purchase organic items?

The term “organic” can have different meanings depending on the context, but generally refers to something that is natural, free of synthetic chemicals, and produced without the use of genetically modified organisms (GMOs).

Organic Agriculture

In agriculture, organic farming practices focus on maintaining soil health, biodiversity, and ecological balance without the use of synthetic fertilizers, pesticides, or other chemicals.

Organic foods are typically produced without the use of antibiotics or growth hormones in animal products, and are often labeled with a certification to indicate that they meet certain standards set by organizations such as the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA).

The Science of Organic

In chemistry, organic compounds are molecules that contain carbon atoms bonded to hydrogen, and often include other elements such as oxygen, nitrogen, and sulfur. These compounds are found in living organisms and play important roles in biological processes.

Overall, the term “organic” generally refers to something that is natural, minimally processed, and free of synthetic chemicals or other artificial additives.

Examples of organic foods:

  • Fruits and vegetables: Organic fruits and vegetables are grown without the use of synthetic pesticides, herbicides, or fertilizers. Examples include organic apples, berries, tomatoes, spinach, kale, and carrots.
  • Meat and poultry: Organic meat and poultry come from animals that are raised without the use of antibiotics or growth hormones, and are fed organic feed. Examples include organic beef, chicken, and turkey.
  • Dairy products: Organic dairy products come from cows that are not treated with antibiotics or growth hormones, and are fed organic feed. Examples include organic milk, cheese, and yogurt.
  • Grains and cereals: Organic grains and cereals are grown without the use of synthetic fertilizers or pesticides. Examples include organic rice, quinoa, oats, and wheat.
  • Nuts and seeds: Organic nuts and seeds are grown without the use of synthetic pesticides or fertilizers. Examples include organic almonds, cashews, and pumpkin seeds.
  • Eggs: Organic eggs come from chickens that are raised without the use of antibiotics or growth hormones, and are fed organic feed.

It’s important to note that not all organic foods are equal in terms of nutrition, taste, or quality. However, organic foods are generally considered to be healthier and more environmentally sustainable than conventionally grown foods.

Is Organic Food Better?

Several studies suggest eating organic food may be better for our bodies.

In 2014, a meta-analysis published in the British Journal of Nutrition analyzed the results of 343 studies and found that organic crops had higher levels of certain nutrients, such as antioxidants, than conventionally grown crops. The study also found that organic crops had lower levels of pesticides and cadmium, a toxic metal that can accumulate in the body.

(Source: Brandt, K., Leifert, C., Sanderson, R., & Seal, C. J. (2014). Agroecosystem management and nutritional quality of plant foods: The case of organic fruits and vegetables. British Journal of Nutrition, 112(6), 794-811.)

A 2018 study published in JAMA Internal Medicine followed nearly 70,000 French adults over five years and found that those who ate more organic food had a lower risk of cancer. The study found that people who ate the most organic food had a 25% lower risk of cancer compared to those who ate the least amount of organic food.

(Source: Baudry, J., Assmann, K. E., Touvier, M., Allès, B., Seconda, L., Latino-Martel, P., … & Hercberg, S. (2018). Association of frequency of organic food consumption with cancer risk: Findings from the NutriNet-Santé Prospective Cohort Study. JAMA Internal Medicine, 178(12), 1597-1606.)

This article covers to the basics of organic, but there’s a lot more information available to you. As a consumer, do your research, learn the terms and how to spot real organic foods from those that are labeled in creative marketing ways.

by
Barb Webb. Founder and Editor of Rural Mom, is an the author of "Getting Laid" and "Getting Baked". A sustainable living expert nesting in Appalachian Kentucky, when she’s not chasing chickens around the farm or engaging in mock Jedi battles, she’s making tea and writing about country living and artisan culture.
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