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Understanding Organics and Clean Eating

Learn what “organic” really means and how you can make the best choices when you go to the supermarket
Written by 
Rachel Meltzer Warren, M.S., R.D.N.
Canyon Ranch Reviewer: 

These days, we see the word “organic” on everything from bunches of bananas to cartons of milk to bars of chocolate, and it’s common to find markets with dedicated organic aisles and sections. But while buying organic is a growing trend and does offer certain health benefits, there’s still some confusion about the term and even more confusion when it comes to filling up your shopping cart. Understanding how a food is classified as “organic” and what various other nutrition labels mean can help you decide when you want to make it a priority to buy those foods. Here are the answers to some common questions:


What does “organic” mean?

Food that’s labeled “organic” is certified by the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA), which means it has been produced by processes that exclude synthetic fertilizers, irradiation (ionizing radiation), sewage sludge and genetic engineering. Organic farming also emphasizes the use of renewable resources and the conservation of soil and water. Look for the USDA organic seal if you’re unsure about a product’s approval. If produce is not clearly labeled, look for items with a PLU (price look-up) code beginning with 9—this signifies that the food is grown organically. 


What are the health benefits of eating organic?

Buying organic foods limits your exposure to pesticides, antibiotics, hormones and other harmful chemicals. Reducing your exposure to these chemicals will help you place less stress on your detoxification and immune systems.

A diet rich in fresh fruits and vegetables is key to providing your body with essential nutrients and maintaining a healthy digestive system. In some cases, you can boost your nutrient intake with organic produce, which may contain higher amounts of vitamin C, zinc and iron. And some studies have found that the concentration of antioxidants in organically produced food is stronger than that of conventionally grown items.


What do the labels mean?

  • 100% Organic: This means the food was produced without using synthetic pesticides, petroleum- or sewage-sludge-based fertilizers, bioengineering or ionizing radiation. Organic meat, poultry, eggs and dairy products come from animals that were fed 100 percent organic feed and given no unnecessary antibiotics or growth hormones.
     
  • Organic: This label means that at least 95 percent of the ingredients are organically produced and it does not contain any sulfites.
     
  • Made with Organic Ingredients: This label signifies that at least 70 percent of the ingredients in the food are organic.

There are other, voluntary labels that you might see, most likely on livestock products:

  • Natural: The USDA has only defined the term “natural” when it comes to certain foods: meat, poultry and eggs. If they’re marked with the “natural” label, these foods can’t contain artificial ingredients or added colors, and they must be minimally processed. And while the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has not defined the term “natural” when it comes to foods, it does not object to the label if the product doesn’t contain added color, artificial flavors or synthetic substances. Still, many foods stamped with this label might contain additives, preservatives and processed sweeteners, clearly separating them from foods certified as organic.
     
  • Cage-free: When you see this label, it means the flock could roam freely in an enclosed area with unlimited access to food and water. The hens had bedding material such as pine shavings on the floor, and they were allowed perches and nest boxes to lay their eggs in. However, they may still have been at close quarters with many other hens and in most cases, the chickens may have never actually gone outside.
     
  • Free-range: This label, regulated by the USDA, means the flock had shelter with unlimited access to food and water, as well as a significant outdoor area where they could roam.
     
  • Grass-fed: Also regulated by the USDA, grass-fed animals are only raised on grass and shrubs, while beef certified as organic comes from animals whose diet may have included grain to accelerate weight gain. It’s important to note that this label does not limit the use of hormones, pesticides or antibiotics unless it’s designated as “grass-fed organic.”
     
  • No Added Hormones: By law, the use of hormones and steroids is not permitted in poultry or pork. You may also see this labeled as “Raised without hormones.”


Should I buy only organic products?

While eating organic foods can be beneficial to your health, it may not be possible to do so all of the time, and you can still enjoy a healthy, clean diet that includes some conventional foods. Consider focusing your efforts on these areas:

  • Produce: The Environmental Working Group (EWG) tracks the fruits and vegetables with the highest pesticide residue levels on its Dirty Dozen Plus list. Apples, celery, cherry tomatoes, collard greens, cucumbers, grapes, hot peppers, imported nectarines, kale, peaches, potatoes, spinach, strawberries, summer squash and sweet bell peppers all made the list in 2013, so it’s a good idea to look for these in the organic section of your market. Canyon Ranch purchases these foods organic whenever possible.

    Other types of produce don’t pose as big of a concern with pesticides, so you can feel more comfortable buying conventional varieties: asparagus, avocado, cabbage, cantaloupe, eggplant, grapefruit, kiwi, mangos, mushrooms, onions, papayas, pineapples, frozen sweet peas and sweet potatoes. Corn is also on this “Clean Fifteen” list, but it’s usually genetically modified; if you want to avoid crops that have been altered, seek out organic corn and corn products.

    You can see the EWG’s complete list of pesticide residue rankings for 51 types of fruits and vegetables here.

    “Organic produce is typically grown in the natural season for that product. That means it's not only a cleaner choice, but it’s also at its peak flavor.”
  • High-fat Dairy: If you’re buying regular milk or yogurt, you may want to consider organic because toxins like pesticides tend to concentrate in animal fat. Although we recommend purchasing organic dairy regardless of the fat content, it’s especially important to buy organic when it comes to full-fat dairy.
     
  • Soy and Soy Products: Much of the soy in the U.S. is genetically modified (GMO), a practice that’s still being researched in terms of safety. Choosing organic is one way to guarantee your soy is non-GMO.


How can I make my conventional choices safer and healthier?

When buying conventional produce, be sure to wash well, discard any outer leaves, remove peels and scrub with a vegetable brush when appropriate to minimize any pesticide residue. You might also consider using a produce wash—these have been shown to reduce surface dirt, pesticides and bacteria on fruits and vegetables.

The healthiest meat is grass-fed organic, but if you can’t get both, grass-fed may actually be the better option. Organically raised animals may be grain-fed, which means their meat contains fewer “good” fats, like omega-3s, and more overall fat. Plus, the environmental impact of grain-fed animals is considerable, as growing grain requires more energy than growing grass.

 

What about seafood?

At this time, there is no USDA-regulated organic seafood , but fish labeled as organic may have been reviewed by a private certification company. Try finding out why the product is being labeled as such before you decide if it’s worth the additional cost (the person at the seafood counter or the store manager may be able to answer this for you). Organic salmon, for example, might have been raised on uncontaminated feed, making it lower in carcinogens. You can also seek out fish from environmentally sound fish farms that mimic natural conditions. Visit our article Safe Ways to Eat More Fish for advice on how to get the health benefits of seafood while minimizing your exposure to toxins and protecting the environment. 

 

 

“Organic produce is typically grown in the natural season for that product. That means it's not only a cleaner choice, but it’s also at its peak flavor.”
Reference(s) 
Food and Drug Administration
Food & Water Watch
Organic Trade Association
United States Department of Agriculture
About the author 
Rachel Meltzer Warren, M.S., R.D.N. is a New York-based nutrition writer, educator and counselor, and author of the The Smart Girl's Guide to Going Vegetarian (Sourcebooks).