The Dummy's Guide to "Organic" by Gia Machlin, October 06 2009, 12 Comments

Much has been written about the difference between organic, natural, and non-organic foods. What do these labels mean? Is there a difference between "organic" and "natural"? Why should I care if my food is not organic? Are certain non-organic foods more harmful than others? Is it really worth the extra price and effort to find organic food, or is it just a big marketing gimmick? And what about Organic vs Local?

Well many of our subscribers may already know this stuff cold, so I'm not writing this for you (but I sure do appreciate that you are reading this!) I'm writing this for the "Organic Newbie." Once again, I totally admit to only recently understanding why buying organic is so much better for me, my family and the planet (remember - I am a reformed MIGG). So here are 4 quick facts/resources that you will hopefully find helpful:

1) There is a huge difference between Organic and Natural. "Organic" is a certification, administered by the USDA. Organic products must be made from at least 95% organic ingredients, and have remaining ingredients that are approved for use in organic products in order to carry “USDA Organic” seal. Organic foods also must be produced without the use of antibiotics, synthetic hormones, genetic engineering and other excluded practices, sewage sludge, or irradiation. Organic foods cannot be produced using toxic and persistent pesticides and fertilizers. There are only minimal guidelines on the use of the word "Natural" and there is very little oversight and no certification associated with the use of this word in food packaging. So, Organic = passed high standards, Natural = not so much.

2) Still why should you care? Well even if you are not concerned about the environmental effects of the use of toxic pesticides and fertilizers on our soil, groundwater, animals, and general ecosystem, you may care about the effect of these toxins on the human body. How bad can it be? Well one of the interns here at EcoPlum once said to me that he would rather eat SH*T than eat anything that wasn't organic. OK, maybe that's a little extreme. But the link between pesticides and increased rates of cancer in children has been proven in over 20 studies. Another study by the National Cancer Institute found that farmers have elevated rates of several types of cancer that are associated with chemical exposure, including pesticides.

3) So, what if you can't find certain organic fruits and veggies - is it OK to buy some non-organic foods? The Environmental Working Group has a great resource called the Shopper's Guide to Pesticides. It lists the "dirty dozen" - fruits and veggies that contain the most pesticides, and the "clean fifteen" - fruits and veggies which are fairly pesticide free and OK to buy non-organic. It even comes with a handy cut-out wallet card for reference while shopping. I have stopped buying non-organic peaches/nectarines, apples, bell peppers, celery and strawberries. Who knew?

4) Local vs. Organic? We have a couple of good articles here at EcoPlum on this topic, so I won't rehash it except to say that they are two completely different things. Buying "local" has to do with reducing the carbon footprint associated with transporting the food from point A to point B. Organic is about what goes into the food and what chemicals are released into the environment while producing the food. Both are important. But it's like saying do I want a man who is smart OR handsome? Um, I'll take both if that's an option!

So that's my dummy's guide to organic. Let me know if you found this useful!