Is organic food really better for you? Yes. You may read or hear differently, and you might even get a little bit of guff from family and friends if you mention that you want to switch to organic foods.
Even some seasoned gardeners hold differing views on the subject. I have garden friends who tell me “it doesn’t matter how plants get their nutrients; synthetic or organic, it’s all the same to them.” That’s not exactly correct. But how do you make this important decision based on tangible information? Here’s what you need to know to make your own decision, and to educate others.
What is organic food?
Farmers who produce food organically use methods that work in concert with nature. There are traditional organic practices for vegetables, fruits, grains, meats, eggs, and dairy products. Organic vegetable and fruit producers employ a variety of methods such as natural fertilizers and compost to build the soil, crop rotation to manage pests, and mulches to manage weeds. Producers of organic eggs, dairy, and meat use organic feeds and natural pasture to feed their livestock. While many people have a specific vision of what “organic farming” means, there is little standardization in the organic farming world, which is one of the uphill battles of the movement.
The USDA Organic Label
If a product is officially labeled “organic”, it must be USDA certified. The USDA has established standards for products that wish to carry the official label. But that is not the entire story. Producers who sell less than $5000/year are exempt from the regulation, and may use the label without official certification by the USDA. They are, however, required to follow the USDA standards.
- Single ingredient foods, such as apples, eggs, or milk, may carry the USDA seal and the words “100% Organic”.
- Processed foods, such as a breakfast cereals or soups, may carry the USDA seal and the words “100% Organic” if every single ingredient in the recipe is certified organic.
- Foods that are at least 95% organic can carry the USDA seal and the word “Organic”. This may lead people to believe a product is totally organic when only 95% is the case.
- If a product contains at least 70% organic ingredients, it can use the phrase “made with organic ingredients”, but they cannot use the seal.
- If a product contains less than 70% organic ingredients, it cannot use the seal or the word “organic” on their product label, but they can list the organic ingredients on the ingredient list.
- The word “natural” is often found on labels, but it is not interchangeable with the word “organic” and does not meet the USDA certification program.
Is all organic food regulated by the USDA?
Many producers choose to forego the right to use the USDA seal and organic certification. Some make this choice because they do not believe that all of the USDA guidelines are worth the effort. There is a massive amount of paperwork required of organic producers. They must keep detailed records that prove their product is organic (according to the USDA guidelines). Conventional farmers are not required to this same paperwork. This documentation is one of the factors affecting the cost of organic food – someone has to do all that extra work.
Many farmer’s market vendors and small local producers offer products that meet or exceed all accepted organic standards. They just can’t claim to be “certified organic”. This is one reason that the “know your producer” movement is promoted. The more you get to know your local producers, they more you will know about their practices and their commitment to providing truly organic foods.
Is there a difference in nutritional content?
Here is where the debate has been stuck like an old vinyl record for four decades. You can find credentialed representatives on both sides that can make factual arguments either way. We will discuss this a bit later in this article, but all things created equally; there are other provable reasons that organic is better for you.
Pesticides – Organic food has significantly less pesticide residue at market. What little pesticide residue it may have will be non-toxic to you and your family since the majority of pesticides used in organic farming are based on natural products, such a garlic-pepper spray, or baking soda-vinegar spray. For the most part, organic farmers try to use little to no pesticides. They will select varieties for resistance, practice crop rotation, use pheromone traps, drape beds in lightweight row covers, or rely on beneficial predatory insects. Buying organic will significantly lower your exposure to pesticides.
Additives – We all see them on the labels; preservatives, flavoring, coloring, thickeners, non-nutritive sweeteners, anti-clumping agents, MSG. We see waxes on apples and cucumbers. We know that potatoes are sprayed with a chemical that delays sprouting. Poultry meats often have sodium solutions injected into them. The more processed the food is, the more additives there are in them. These additives are banned by organic regulations. Non-certified organic producers will not add them to their products; they are contrary to the commitment to organics. Buying organic will eliminate a number of harmful food additives from your diet.
GMO – Genetically engineered foods are a widespread concern. Poll after poll shows that Americans are not wild about the idea of “franken-foods”. They are banned in many European countries. Certified organic programs do not allow the use of GMO seed. Many seed companies that supply organic and heirloom seed have signed the “Safe Seed Pledge” which assures the grower that the seed they offer is certified non-GMO. Hybrids are not the same as genetically engineered seeds. Hybrids are the result of crosses that are facilitated by man, but are completed through means that are completely natural to plant reproduction. Hybrids form naturally in nature as well. Genetic engineering is accomplished by splicing the genes of one species into another. Some genetically engineered crops are produced by splicing plant genes, but others are produced by splicing the genes of viruses or bacteria into the host. Organic producers of eggs, dairy, and meat products avoid GMO, choosing instead to feed their livestock non-GMO, non-soy, organic feed. Buying organic will minimize your exposure to GMOs.
Antibiotics – Conventional producers of eggs, dairy, and meat use a range of medications to combat livestock diseases. However, some of these diseases are a direct result of their conventional practices. Pastures are fertilized with synthetic fertilizers and sprayed with herbicides to manage weeds. Living conditions are often crowded, poorly lit, and poorly ventilated. Feedlot and battery cage animals often stand in their own waste for days on end. Feed is often GMO, highly processed, and sometimes comprised of ingredients that are not a part of the animal’s natural diet. Yes, minimum protein, fiber, and nutritional content are met, but often using synthetic components. To compensate, the livestock is placed on medicated feeds and water – sometimes from birth to death. Organic producers use none of these methods. Their livestock is allowed to range freely supplemented with organic feed that contains probiotics, vitamins and minerals, and natural wormers such as DE. Buying organic lowers your intake of antibiotics.
Are there trade-offs?
Yes. Organic foods may spoil faster than conventional foods. The lack of preservatives is a good thing for our health, but means that we need to plan meals carefully and use food while it is freshest.
Organically grown foods may be irregularly shaped, vary in color, or have a few bug holes in a leaf. Nature is highly variable.
Eating totally organically will mean that you eat more seasonally, especially if you are sourcing your products locally. This will affect fruits and veggies only, since eggs, dairy, and meat are available year-round. You will find yourself planning your menu around your shopping rather than planning your shopping around your menu. People ate this way for centuries, and it may be healthier for us as well.
And lastly, there is a cost difference. This is unfortunate, but it is a fact of the matter. Organic farming has a tendency to be more labor intense. It is less mechanized, and the products the farmer uses cost him more up front. This has already begun to change, and it will continue to moderate as consumers demand more access to organic food and as the pool of producers grows.
What is Brix, and why does it matter?
Brix is a measurement of food quality in vegetables and fruits. It is primarily a measurement of the carbohydrate level, which is what affects the taste of the food. Brix is measured using a refractometer. As light passes through a few small drops of plant juices, it is refracted by the carbohydrates and the dissolved minerals in the sap. The higher the Brix, the more flavorful the fruit or veggie is. Organic gardeners are obsessed with Brix. They compete with each other and themselves about Brix. They will get into long discussions about Brix.
Why does Brix matter? Because this is where all of the back and forth about organic versus conventional may end. I promised you we would revisit the discussion about the nutritional advantage of organic foods and here it is. Brix is not only a measurement of flavor it is also a measurement of nutrition. The higher the Brix, the more nutritious a food is. The minerals in high Brix foods are naturally chelated. Chelation can increase absorption by as much as 76%. In short, they are more bio-available.
High Brix plants are resistant to pests and diseases. William Albrecht, soil scientist and foremost authority on the relationship between soil health and human health, put it this way: “Insects and disease are the symptoms of a failing crop, not the cause of it. It’s not the overpowering invader we must fear but the weakened condition of the victim.” Animals will instinctively choose pasture plants with higher levels of carbohydrates and mineral density – the high Brix option. They have a preference for plants that are more nutritionally dense.
The best way to raise Brix in plants is to build “high Brix soil”. The steps to building high Brix soils are:
- Soil Biology – microbes, nematodes, and fungi break down nutrients and deliver them to the roots of the plants. Compost is the foundation and can be supplemented with inoculations of mycorrhizae.
- Minerals – calcium and phosphorus are essential to high Brix soil. Rock powders are a reliable delivery of foundational minerals.
- Trace elements – these are the “micro” nutrients; magnesium, zinc, boron, iron, copper, sulfur, manganese, etc.
- Slow Release Organic Fertilizers – fertilizers comprised of all natural nutrients. SROFs provide the “macro” nutrients of Nitrogen, Phosphorus, and Potassium (N-P-K) in addition to some micro-nutrients, minerals, components that favor the soil biology.
- Foliar feeding – plants absorb trace elements and minerals quite easily through their leaves. Foliar feeding regularly is an important part of a high Brix plan. The nutrients are delivered to the roots, where a portion is sent out through the roots as root exudates, sending out signals to symbiotic micro-organisms.
Each of these steps is a natural part of organic farming. They are seldom or never a part of conventional farming. Once Brix is used as a fair comparison of organic versus conventional fruits and vegetables, the debate may be over. I don’t expect to see an end of conventional farming in my lifetime, but as the community of savvy consumers grows, I do expect to see a continued interest in organic foods across the board.
Real Medicine, Real Health – Dr. Arden Andersen
Seeds of Deception – Jeffrey Smith