If you’ve ever wanted to start eating healthier, you may have wondered if it is worth it to start buying organic food. After all, the word “organic” certainly sounds healthy.
As organic food has become more popular in recent years, labels like “no added hormones or antibiotics” and “grass-fed” are starting to appear more often, too. What do these terms mean, and are there any benefits to buying food items that make these claims?
Florida Medical Clinic Dietitian Kim Chism breaks down what organic food labels mean, and if any of the commonly proposed benefits, like higher nutrient content and fewer dangerous chemicals, are really true.
What is Organic Food?
The US Department of Agriculture (USDA) defines “organic” food as food that is:
- Produced without the use of excluded methods. In the context of food production, an excluded method is anything that is not possible under natural conditions. Examples include genetic engineering, ionizing radiation, or the use of waste water.
- Produced in accordance with the National List of Allowed and Prohibited Substances. Examples of prohibited substances include arsenic, lead salts and tobacco dust in crop production, and antibiotics in livestock production.
- Overseen by a National Organic Program-authorized certifying agent. This is to make sure the producer is following all of the USDA’s organic regulations.
Understanding Organic Food Labels
To better understand the benefits of organic food, it helps to understand what the following labels commonly used on organic foods mean:
1. “No Added Hormones” and “No Added Antibiotics”
In the US, added hormones are prohibited in the production of all organic pork and poultry, so there’s no need to put a “no added hormone” label on these products. However, the FDA does allow the use of hormones in beef, so if you’d like to avoid meat produced with synthetic hormones, check your beef for the “no added hormone” label.
The term “no added antibiotics” means antibiotics have not been used in the production of red meat (including beef and pork) and poultry. The overuse of antibiotics can contribute to the spread of drug-resistant bacteria, which can be harmful to humans in the long-run.
2. “Grass-Fed” or “Grass-Finished”
There is no standard USDA definition for these terms, so they are largely defined by meat producers.
“Grass-fed” generally means an animal has eaten only grass for MOST of its lifetime (may not include time before slaughter). “Grass-finished” generally means an animal has eaten only grass throughout its lifetime (including time before slaughter).
Third-party certifications, such as those from the American Grass-Fed Association or Food Alliance, are helpful. The best way to know if an animal has been fed grass for most (grass-fed) or all (grass-fed and grass-finished) of its lifetime is to talk with a local producer who sells meat.
According to the USDA, “natural” means that a meat or poultry product contains no artificial ingredients or added color, and is only minimally processed.
4. “Free-Range” and “Free-Roaming”
The terms “free-range” and “free roaming” relate to the treatment of animals and do not specifically address the nutritional ingredients of animal products.
These labels indicate that poultry has been allowed access to the outside. However, this definition is quite vague, and in some cases can mean access only through a “pop hole” without any full-body access to the outdoors.
Is Organic Food Better for Your Health?
Now that you know what these terms mean the more important question is: “Does it matter if I choose these products”? If I’m eating healthier foods, do they need to fall into these categories?
While we don’t have the data just, yet, here’s what we do know about organic foods vs non-organic foods:
- A review of the most recent research reveals that organic produce has more antioxidants and lower amounts of cadmium and pesticides than conventional produce.
- Organic meat and dairy products contain more omega 3 fatty acids, which can help to reduce inflammation in the body. A small number of human cohort (group) studies also reveal an association between consumption of organic foods and a reduced risk for certain acute diseases, such as pre-eclampsia, and obesity.
- Individuals who purchase organic products tend to have healthy habits in general. It is unclear what role organic products may play in overall health risk and outcomes.
- Currently, there are no long term human studies that evaluate the impact of organic food consumption on chronic disease risk. There are also no controlled studies that evaluate differences between organic and conventional dietary intake.
The Bottom Line
While we we do know that a healthy lifestyle that incorporates a wide variety of whole or minimally-processed foods. There’s no doubt that a diet of vegetables, fruits, nuts, seeds, and lean meats—whether they’re produced organically or not—enhances human health and well-being.
Whether or not organic foods offer a significant advantage is yet to be determined, but as long as you keep whole foods at the forefront of your eating habits, your body will thank you!