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Organic 101

What is organic food?

Organic food is food that is grown without the use of synthetic fertilizers, chemical pesticides and insecticides, growth hormones or antibiotics.  Organic food cannot be irradiated, contain genetically engineered organisms (GEOs) or genetically modified organisms (GMOs), and cannot be grown using sewage sludge fertilizer.

What is the most compelling reason to switch to organic food? What do consumers really need to know about conventionally-grown food?

While there are many good reasons for people to switch to an organic diet — superior nutrition, in the form of more omega 3-s and greater amounts of antioxidants;a way to avoid risky GMOs; better for the planet and the local economy; safer for farm workers — the truth is that most individuals come to organic because they do not want to consume toxic chemicals in their food.

Here are a few of the super-toxic chemicals that are allowed in conventional food but prohibited in organic production.


What: The primary ingredient in Monsanto’s RoundUp and the most widely used weed-killing herbicide in the world.

Usage: 250 million pounds used each year in the U.S. and 1.65 billion pounds used globally.

Prevalence: 70-80% of the food we eat in the U.S. is genetically-modified, and there is an incredibly high probability that these GMOs have been sprayed with glyphosate. After all, GMOs were designed to sell chemicals.

A report by Food Democracy Now and The Detox Project showed that nearly all of the well-known conventional food products that it tested had very high levels of glyphosate.

Impact: It is known to the State of California that glyphosate causes cancer.


What: The second most popular weed killer in the U.S.

Most telling is that the Swiss-based owner of atrazine, Syngenta, cannot even sell atrazine in its own continent. It is banned in Europe.

Usage:  Approximately 80 million pounds used each year in the U.S.

Prevalence: It is widely sprayed on corn, sugar cane and sorghum, and is now found in 88% of our drinking water.

Impact: In 2016, the EPA said that “there are risk concerns for mammals, birds, reptiles, plants and plant communities across the country for many atrazine uses.”

The President’s Cancer Panel report said that “atrazine has been shown to affect mammary gland development in animal studies, with some findings suggesting multi-generational effects.”

The State of California said that it causes reproductive harm and developmental toxicity.


What: A very popular insecticide sold under the trade name of Lorsban, which is owned by Dow Chemical.

Usage:  It is used on a wide variety of fruit, nut and vegetable crops, and in 2015, the FDA reported that chlorpyrifos was the 4th most prevalent chemical found in human foods.

Prevalence: Chlorpyrifos was set to be banned by the federal government until the EPA’s Scott Pruitt reversed this decision in March of 2017.

Impact: The EPA said that it cannot vouch for the safety of the chlorpyrifos residues found in food. The chemical is so toxic that it has been banned from use on tomatoes and from most uses in the home. Additionally, the State of California has said that chlorpyrifos causes reproductive toxicity.

Children appear to be very at risk from this chemical. A UC-Berkeley study showed that high in utero exposures to chlorpyrifos resulted in poorer intellectual development in children, and Columbia University showed that pre-natal exposure to chlorpyrifos has resulted in brain anomalies.

Is organic food more nutritious than conventionally grown food?

Yes. Organic farmers practice crop rotation.  This means that they will grow different crops each year to preserve and nourish the soil, and to promote biodiversity.   Traditional farmers may grow the same crops on the same soil year after year and use toxic chemicals, both of which result in nutrient depletion.

The nutritional value of food is strongly correlated to the nutritional value of the soil.  It is all about the soil.

Here are a few studies that talk about the nutritional advantages of organic food.

  • In 2017, scientists in Ireland reported that organic onions had higher levels of antioxidants and flavonols when compared to conventionally-grown onions.
  • In 2014, researchers at Newcastle University in England found that organic fruits, vegetables, and grains contained higher levels of antioxidants and lower levels of pesticides compared to the same conventionally-grown food.
  • In research published in 2013 in PLOS One, the scientists reported that organic milk contained 62% more omega-3 fatty acids and 25% fewer omega-6s.
  • In 2012, researchers at the University of Barcelona found that organic tomatoes have a higher amount of antioxidants than conventional tomatoes.
  • A 2010 report by Washington State University said that organic strawberries have higher levels of antioxidants, last longer and taste better than conventionally-grown strawberries.
  • A 2009 report by the French Agency for Food Safety (AFSSA) says that organic food has greater levels of polyphenols in fruits and vegetables (protect against cancer), polyunsaturated fatty acids in meats and milk, and more nutrients in wholegrain cereals than traditional food.
  • In 2007, the Journal of Agriculture and Food Chemistry Research published findings from a ten-year study at the University of California-Davis which showed flavonoid levels increase over time in organically-grown crops. More specifically, the researchers found that organic tomatoes contain on average 79 and 97% more quercetin and kaempferol aglycones (beneficial flavonoids) than conventionally-grown tomatoes.  Flavonoids are antioxidants found in plants, which can be very beneficial to the human body.
  • As reported in the 2006 Journal of Dairy Science, a three-year study conducted by the Universities of Liverpool and Glascow found organic milk contained 68% more omega-3 fatty acids, on average, than conventional milk.
  • A 2003 study in the Journal of Agriculture and Food Chemistry reported that organically-grown marionberries had 50% more antioxidants than conventionally-grown berries and organically-grown strawberries had19% more antioxidants than conventionally-grown strawberries.  The study also said that organic produce had higher levels of ascorbic acid, which the body converts to Vitamin C.

Why does organic food cost more than conventionally-grown food?

This is due to a variety of reasons including: major agribusinesses receive large subsidies from the government, particularly for corn-based products; most organic farmers do not have the economies scale to compete with large corporate conglomerates, and; organic food producers must go through go through a rigorous and time-consuming process to receive organic certification.

Even though conventional food may cost less, it does not deliver the same amount of mineral nutrition.  The cost may be lower but so is the nutritional value.

Why does organic food not last as long as conventionally-grown food?

This is because organic food does not contain artificial preservatives to extend its shelf life.  Having these preservatives results in an inferior taste.

If I am new to organic, do I have to eat absolutely everything that is organic?

Switching to a 100% organic diet Day 1 is not realistic for most people.  If you are new to organic, below are a few different suggestions for getting started.

  • Go into the market and look for products with the USDA Organic Seal — see below.
  • Look for fruits and vegetables that start with the number “9”
  • If you have kids, buy organic milk and organic cereal.
  • Substitute your regular soda with organic soda or organic juices.
  • If you are not a vegetarian, buy organic chicken instead of regular chicken.

Start off slowly, don’t buy too much, and see what products work well for you.  Also, you will need to understand the short shelf-life of organic fruits and vegetables so you don’t waste any food or money.

Here is a video that I put together that explains how we know if something is organic or not.

What are the different categories of organic?

There are three different types of organic labeling.


This means that 100% of all ingredients in a product (except salt) and water, are organic.  100% certified organic products may use the USDA Organic Seal.


This means that 95% of all ingredients in a product, except salt and water, are organic.  Certified organic products may use the USDA Organic Seal.


This means that 70% of all ingredients in a product, except salt and water, are organic.  These products may not use the USDA Organic Seal.

What is the history of organic food regulation in the U.S.?

It largely began with the passage of the Organic Foods Production Act of 1990 (OFPA).  This bill mandated for the creation of an advisory board, the National Organic Standards Board (NOSB), to write recommendations for the standards of organic food.  It took 12 years for the government to approve the exact wording of these standards and establish criteria for which foods could call themselves “USDA Certified Organic”.

How do I know the food I am eating is organic?

Organic food is certified by an independent, third-party certification agency. The USDA’s National Organic Program (NOP) approves for-profit and not-for-profit organizations that wish to be official certification agencies.

Certifiers work with farmers to make sure that:

  • The soil used has been chemical-free for at least 3 years
  • The farmer is practicing and adhering to organic standards
  • All operations of the farm are in compliance with organic standards
  • An extensive log is in place and is being used to record all activity

Food processors and manufacturers are held to the same standards as farmers. Inspections take place at least once per year.

Many small farmers practice organic farming but do not participate in the certification process because the cost and time expenses are too onerous. Therefore, they are not legally allowed to call their food organic.

An organic food product lists the certification agency on its label. The largest agency is Quality Assurance International.

What is the difference between organic and natural?

Natural products are supposed to contain no artificial ingredients or added colors and be minimally processed.  Natural products do not have near the regulation, standards or enforcement as do organic products.

Overall, there is a lot of widespread abuse of the word “natural”, and there is tremendous confusion about what the word means and the value it provides.

livingmaxwell: a guide to organic food & drink