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Organic Foods: to Buy or Not to Buy?

Conventional vs. Organic: What Is the Difference?

Image for organic foods article The difference between organic and conventional food begins with the production process. Conventional farmers have the option to use things like pesticides, fertilizers containing synthetic ingredients, sewage sludge (the semi-solid waste by-product from municipal sewage treatment plants), or bioengineering to help produce their crops. Organic farmers do not use these items. Instead, they use strategies like crop rotation, mulching, and manure to help grow their products.

This difference applies equally to plant and animal products. For example, animals used to produce organic products, such as meat, poultry, eggs, and dairy products are not given antibiotics or growth hormones. The following table lists the differences between conventional and organic farming:

ConventionalOrganic
Use chemical fertilizers to promote plant growthApply natural fertilizers, such as manure or compost to feed the soil and plants
Apply insecticides to reduce pests and diseaseUse beneficial insects (insects that eat other insects) and birds to reduce pests and disease
May use antibiotics, growth hormones, and medicines to promote growth and prevent diseaseGive animals organic feed; rely on preventive measures, rotational grazing, a balanced diet, and clean housing to reduce disease

How Can I Be Certain My Organic Food Is Really Organic?

The US Department of Agriculture (USDA) has national organic standards for agricultural products. These standards regulate the way all foods bearing the USDA organic label are grown, handled, and processed. The only exception to these standards is small organic farmers who sell less than $5,000 a year in organic foods.

These standards mean that organic products, from anywhere in the country, now fall into 4 categories. Only 2 categories are allowed to display the USDA organic label. The following table lists these categories and outlines what products making these claims may and may not contain.

USDA Organic Food Labeling Requirements
Label Organic Seal Description
100% organic productscan display the USDA organic seal
  • Must contain 100% organically produced ingredients, not including added water and salt
Organic productscan display the USDA organic seal
  • Must contain at least 95% organic ingredients, not including added water and salt
  • Must not contain sulfites
  • May contain up to 5% of non-organically produced agricultural ingredients not commercially available in organic form or other substances
Made with organic ingredients (or similar statement)cannot display the USDA organic seal.
  • Must contain at least 70% organic ingredients, not including added water and salt
  • Must not contain added sulfites (except that wine may contain small amounts of sulfur dioxide)
  • May contain up to 30% of non-organically produced agricultural ingredients and/or other substances, including yeast
Made with some organic ingredientscannot display the USDA organic seal
  • May contain at least 70% organic ingredients, not including added salt or water
  • May contain over 30% of non-organically produced agricultural ingredients or other substances

Going Organic

People who choose to switch to organic do so for many more reasons. Here is a list of things you may want to keep in mind while making up your own mind:

Buying Tips

In the end, deciding whether buying organic is right for you will be a highly personal decision. Here are some additional buying tips to keep in mind:

RESOURCES:

Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics
http://www.eatright.org

US Department of Agriculture
https://www.usda.gov

CANADIAN RESOURCES:

Dietitians of Canada
http://www.dietitians.ca

Healthy Canadians
https://www.canada.ca

REFERENCES:

Do I need to be certified organic? US Department of Agriculture website. Available at: https://www.ams.usda.gov/sites/default/files/media/DoINeedTobeCertifiedOrganicFactSheet.pdf. Accessed October 25, 2017.

Going organic: What's the payoff? Center for Science in the Public Interest website. Available at: https://cspinet.org/tip/going-organic-whats-payoff. Accessed October 25, 2017.

Introduction to organic practices. US Department of Agriculture website. Available at: https://www.ams.usda.gov/sites/default/files/media/Organic%20Practices%20Factsheet.pdf. Accessed October 25, 2017.

Labeling packaged products under the national organic standards. US Department of Agriculture website. Available at: https://www.ams.usda.gov/sites/default/files/media/NOP%20Labeling%20Packaged%20Products.pdf. Accessed October 25, 2017.

Magkos F, Arvaniti F, Zampelas A. Organic food: nutritious food or food for thought? A review of the evidence. Int J Food Sci Nutr. 2003;54(5):357-371.

Organic regulations. US Department of Agriculture website. Available at:https://www.ams.usda.gov/rules-regulations/organic. Accessed October 25, 2017.

Understanding organic labeling. US Department of Agriculture website. Available at: http://www.ams.usda.gov/grades-standards/organic-labeling-standards. Accessed October 25, 2017.

Last reviewed October 2017 by EBSCO Medical Review Board Michael Woods, MD, FAAP  Last Updated: 1/22/2014