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Understanding Organic Foods

Learn more about the history, definition, labeling guidelines and costs of going organic.

It seems to me as though the organic movement started as one small section in the produce aisle. Then I noticed half a store aisle with unfamiliar products. I checked it out as more out of curiosity than anything else, noting they were products marketed as healthier for us and then finishing the rest of my grocery shopping. But as time went by, I noticed more and more of these products appearing on store shelves. And then there it was; this organic brand sitting right next to my peanut butter. As a health conscious individual, I wanted to learn more about “going organic.”

In my review of the current literature, I found recurring questions: What is the difference between natural and organic foods? Are organic foods more nutritious than non-organic foods? Why do organic foods cost more? Two of the three questions had straight forward answers, but one remains inconclusive and speculative at best. This article will answer those questions, highlight what the clinical significance may be and feature price comparison shopping done at my local supermarket.


Farming practices prior to the 20th century were considered “organic.” A small portion of farmers retained these traditional methods rather than adopting the progression to chemical farming. In the 1960s and 1970s, organic food was established in the public’s mind thanks in part to Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring. Her book brought public awareness to the ecological problems associated with agricultural chemicals and the use of synthetic insecticides.

Public awareness to the consequences of modern farming practices created a growing consumer demand for food grown without toxic chemicals or causing ecological destruction. The early organic agricultural research came from the western U.S., with the state of California being the largest producing and largest consuming state for organic foods.1

As the consumer demand grew for organically produced foods, so did the need for standards, regulations and guidelines. In the 1990 Farm Bill, Congress passed the Organic Foods Production Act. Before the initiation of this act, there was inconsistent, inadequate or nonexistent enforcement of organic labeling. This important act provided organic farmers and consumers with protection and standards set by the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA).1

Defining Organic

The words natural and organic are not synonymous; there is distinction between the two terms. Natural is a processing term used by the USDA to mean the final product is minimally processed and no artificial ingredients were applied after processing.2

The definition of organic varies depending on who may be defining it. The USDA, which is the governing body for the industry, provides the definition: “Organic food is produced by farmers who emphasize the use of renewable resources and the conservation of soil and water to enhance environmental quality for future generations. 3 Organic meat, poultry, eggs and dairy products come from animals that are given no antibiotics or growth hormones. Organic food is produced without using most conventional pesticides; fertilizers made with synthetic ingredients or sewage sludge; bioengineering or ionizing radiation.”3

Labeling Guidelines

The labeling of organic product is also set by the USDA. Products are labeled based upon the percentage of organic ingredients.4 Packaged foods currently have three classifications.

  • 100 percent organic – All products labeled as 100 percent organic must contain certified organic agricultural ingredients.All processing aids also must be certified organic, and those products labeled as 100 percent organic may not contain any materials from the National List of Allowed and Prohibited Substances. These products may display the National Organic Program/USDA organic seal.4
  • Organic – These products must contain at least 95 percent certified organic agricultural ingredients, with the remaining 5 percent from a list approved by the National Organic Standards Board (NOSB). These products may also display the USDA organic seal.4
  • Made with organic ingredients – These products must contain at least 70 percent organic ingredients, with the remaining 30 percent from the approved NOSB list.2

There are no percentages to organic produce. It is either organic or it has been conventionally grown. All produce is labeled with a four-digit look up code (PLU). Organically produced fruits and vegetables PLU begin with the No. 9 for easier identification.2

For beef products to be organically certified they must be from cattle bred from organically certified parents.The use of growth hormones is prohibited. These ranchers promote growth by allowing the animal more time to graze. If one of these animals becomes infected and is in need of an antibiotic, this animal is sold to a nonorganic supplier. One of the most significant differences between organically produced beef is the feed provided to these animals.For organic certification, these animals are not permitted any animal byproducts in their feed.2

Nutritional Value

Are organically produced foods more nutritious than foods processed by conventional methods? Consumers generally perceive organic foods to be healthier and safer for themselves and the environment.5,6 There has been numerous studies assessing whether organic foods have higher levels of vitamins, minerals and phytochemicals and fewer pesticide residual than conventionally produced foods.7 But there have only been a limited number of studies conducted to assess the actual or potential health benefits of eating organic food.

Crinnon’s research found multiple factors affecting the nutritional content of produce. These factors include weather affecting the crops, specific environmental conditions from one farm to the next, soil conditions, and length of time the specific plot of land has been worked using organic methods.7

In determining the potential health benefits of organic foods, two studies examined whether drinking organic wine provided greater protection against LDL oxidation than conventional wine.7 In each study, no difference was found between organic and non-organic wine; however, red wine of either method provided greater inhibition of LDL oxidation compared to white wine.8,9

In a study on the anticancer potential of vegetables to suppress the mutagenicity of various environmental toxins, including benzo(a)pyrene (BaP, the main carcinogen in cigarette smoke and auto exhaust), organic vegetables were found to be more active than their conventional counterparts.10 Also noted in this study was the ability of organic strawberries to block proliferation of HT29 colon cancer cells and MCF-7 breast cancer cells.11 The extracts of organic berries were more potent than conventional strawberries in reducing cellular proliferation in both cancer cell lines.8

The second study details the systematic review performed on 162 relevant journal articles to evaluate all available evidence on the nutritional composition and health benefits of organic foods.12 The results of the statistical analysis found no evidence of any differences between organically and conventionally produced crops for eight of the nutrient groups analyzed including vitamin C, phenol compounds, magnesium and zinc.A second review was performed to determine if there was any evidence of nutrition-related health benefits from consumption of organic foods.And again this review reported there is currently no evidence of any nutrition-related health benefits from consuming organic foods.12

Cost Concerns

Although it’s been reported sales of organic foods topped $13.8 billion in 2005, it is expected to grow.Due to their cost, unfortunately, these products remain out of reach for some.2 I performed a comparison on the price differences between organic versus non-organic items at my local supermarket. The items in comparison included produce, canned goods, dairy products, hygiene products and baby food.

In all cases, the organic product was higher in price. The price difference in these products ranged from the lowest of .25 cents all the way up to $2.30 difference. The 14 organic items totaled $52.91 versus the non-organic total of $32.74. Based upon these findings, it would be reasonable to assume buying organic food for the average family would be expensive and out of reach for some.

My review of the literature finds there are higher nutrients and less pesticide residual, but it does not support any increased health benefits in organic foods. This may be in part due to the many variables affecting one’s health. As for the clinical significance, presently the evidence does not support the promotion of organic foods as “better or healthier.” More research will need to be done on this subject. Although human health is not the only benefit of organics, there are environmental and animal welfare benefits also. Organic food is not a new concept; we have modernized with retail chains like Whole Foods. Will those who “go organic” be healthier? Only time will tell.

 Kathleen Popinski is a family nurse practitioner at Behm Family Practice, Division of Genesis Medical Association, Wexford, PA.

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2 responses

  1. Pingback: Q&A: Buying Organic Food, Worth the Cost? «

  2. Pingback: Natural Vs. Organic- Why Keeping It Real Doesn’t Pay |

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