Is Organic Food Really Better for You?
Written by Marilyn Damord ‘24, Content Marketing Intern
If you’ve been in your grocery store’s produce section lately, you’ve likely seen an “organic” label. But what does that label really mean?
Production of USDA-certified organic foods must meet a very specific set of standards, including minimal use of chemicals in pesticides and soil management practices, regulated livestock feeding and care, and avoidance of genetic engineering. These standards apply to any agricultural product with an organic label: fruits, vegetables, dairy, eggs, poultry, meat, fish, rice and grains, and even some natural textiles.
Organic foods have long been a topic of debate, as many have argued that they are healthier for your body than non-organic, or “conventional” foods. However, the differences between these two options are more complicated than they may seem. Each has pros and cons for the human diet, making it difficult to decide what to buy during your next grocery run. So, is organic food really better for you?
Benefits of Organic Food
Organic foods are often fresher than their conventional counterparts, especially if you’re buying from a local farmer’s market or produce stand. If you love a farm-fresh taste, organic options will likely provide the best cooking and dining experience.
Unlike non-organic items on the shelf, these foods go from farm to table with little-to-no use of synthetic ingredients, so consumers avoid exposure to certain substances that have been linked to health issues like hindered brain development and antibiotic-resistant bacteria.
Since they avoid the use of chemical additives in the growing process, organic foods can also be more environmentally friendly and support local biodiversity. Pesticides are often fatal to helpful pollinators, including bees, so organic farming techniques provide much-needed support for the honeybee population.
Benefits of Non-Organic Food
Most noticeably, non-organic food is usually more affordable than organic products. Since non-organic farming practices are less expensive and produce more crops per acre, that savings is passed along to the consumer.
Conventional foods also typically last longer on the shelf and don’t spoil as quickly as organic foods, making them great for longer-term storage and consumption. And while organic foods have a reputation for being healthy and nutritious, studies show that there is actually very little difference in nutritional value between organic and conventional foods.
Organic Food and Sustainability
Producing food without chemical pesticides has a lot of benefits. Organic systems have been shown to produce 40% higher yields in times of drought, use 45% less energy, and release 40% fewer carbon emissions than conventional farming methods (Rodale Institute). Organic farming encourages soil health, supports natural ecosystems, and prevents toxins from pesticides from contaminating waterways.
Still, environmental impact varies. In general, organic plants are affected by more weeds and insects than conventional crops, which means a lower yield at harvest time and a less efficient use of space. Non-organic modern farming methods help to maximize the use of land for agriculture, which reduces land-clearing and deforestation—both practices that are detrimental to ecosystems, biodiversity, and our carbon footprint. Because of this, scientists warn against switching entirely to organic farming as the global population continues to grow and food crops become more in demand.
So…Should I Buy Organic Food?
In terms of nutrition, organic and conventional foods are about evenly matched—there is currently not enough evidence to suggest that one method of growing makes food more nutritious to eat than the other. Likewise, when it comes to environmental sustainability, there are pros and cons to each approach.
Rather than creating strict guidelines around organic versus non-organic food, it may be more helpful to evaluate your grocery list on a smaller scale. Buying from local providers in-season, rather than a grocery chain, is a convenient way to get farm-fresh goods at affordable prices. You may also sign up for a CSA share from a local farm and get your produce directly from the grower.
When produce is out of season in your region or when affordable local providers aren’t available, rest assured that you can still achieve a well-balanced, healthy diet by purchasing non-organic items. Just be sure to stay educated about what all those food labels mean—you’ll find that terms like “organic,” “natural,” and “non-GMO” can have very different meanings.
Realistically, there are probably ways you can enjoy both organic and conventional foods in your everyday diet. What’s most important is that you’ve done your research, understand your personal preferences, and are making an educated decision about what’s best for you. If you have questions about how to integrate organic and/or non-organic foods into a healthy diet, ask your healthcare professional, a registered dietician, or a certified nutrition specialist for guidance.
Interested in organic food production, the environment, and/or sustainability? York College offers a variety of programs in these areas. Explore YCP’s majors and minors, including: