Organic? Non-GMO foods?

A closer look

Created date

April 6th, 2017
An assortment of fresh vegetables

Organic fruits and vegetables are thought to have greater amounts of antioxidants.

A recent poll by the Pew Research Center found that Americans are about equally divided on their opinions of organic foods and genetically modified (GM) foods.

The nationwide poll of 1,480 adults showed that 55% of respondents thought organic produce was healthier than regular produce, and 44% said there was no difference. When it comes to GM foods, about 40% thought they were worse for health than non-GM foods. About half thought there was no difference. 

What is organic?

When a food is labeled organic, that means it was produced at a farm that adheres to certain standards set forth by the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA). These farming practices are intended to minimize pollution and conserve soil and water. For instance, to feed plants, farmers use natural fertilizers. They rotate crops to conserve soil and use mulch to control weeds (or in some cases, weed by hand). 

Organic meats must be from animals raised on organic farms. The animals must be fed organic feed, have outdoor access, and contain no antibiotics or added hormones. There are no standards in the U.S. for organic seafood, as conditions are difficult to control with fish. European standards are different, so you may see European Union (EU) certified seafood in some stores.

Is organic more nutritious?

“Organic fruits and vegetables are thought to have greater amounts of antioxidants when compared to those that are conventionally grown,” says Brian Tremaine, M.D., medical director at Eagle’s Trace, an Erickson Living community in Houston, Tex. “However, the scientific evidence to date does not support this, nor does it support that eating organic foods confers better health.”

Sticking to organic foods may limit your exposure to synthetic pesticides and additives. It’s important to note that traces of pesticides or additives on conventionally grown produce and hormones or antibiotics in meats do not exceed safety thresholds set by the U.S. government.  

Any reason not to buy organic?

One downside to organic food is its higher price, due mostly to the more expensive farming practices. There are ways you can save, however. “People with a limited income can get the best value from their organic produce purchases by buying fruits and vegetables in forms such as frozen, canned, or dried,” says Robyn Flipse, M.S., R.D., owner and operator of Nutrition Communication Services in Bradley Beach, N.J. “In-season fresh produce is often a good deal and so is buying in bulk if you can preserve it yourself.”

In addition, because organic produce is generally free from preservatives or waxes, it may spoil faster. 

What are genetically modified foods?

These foods have had their DNA changed using genes from other plants or animals with the goal of improving some trait of the product. 

“The availability of GM crops has allowed farmers to produce more food using less land and other natural resources to meet the needs of a growing global population,” Flipse says. “The GM foods grown in the U.S. are alfalfa, canola, corn, cotton, soybeans, sugar beets, summer squash, papaya, and potatoes. Ingredients from these crops, such as cottonseed oil, high-fructose corn syrup, and soy lecithin, end up in 70% of the foods in the grocery store.”

People who oppose GM foods think they aren’t safe and want regulations in place to label all GM products. At this point, any manufacturer can claim there are no GMOs (or genetically modified organisms) used to produce the food because there is no standardization for the term. 

According to the Organic Consumers Organization, animal studies show that consuming GM foods may increase the risk of numerous problems, including allergies, kidney and liver disease, cancer, and chronic immune disorders. 

According to the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), however, there is no scientific evidence to support these claims, and the FDA along with major science organizations such as the World Health Organization and National Academy of Sciences study and monitor the safety and nutrition of GM foods. “Unless your diet has been made up exclusively of 100% organically certified foods,” Flipse says, “we have all been eating GM foods for over 30 years and there is no evidence of harm to anyone.”

Your daily food choices are what influence your health the most. “The single most important food decision that will influence your health is whether you eat the recommended number of servings of fruits, vegetables, whole grains, beans, nuts, seeds, dairy products, and protein-rich foods you need each day,” Flipse says. “You cannot benefit from what you don’t eat, and your health can suffer from eating too much of some foods at the expense of others.”

How much is organic?

It’s easy to determine that food is organic if it is labeled “100% organic,” but labels on multi-ingredient foods can be confusing. Use this guide: 

  • “Organic” means 95% or more and may display the USDA seal.
  • “Made with organic ingredients” means that at least 70% of the ingredients are organic, but the product may not display the seal. 
  • Foods containing less than 70% organic ingredients can’t use the USDA seal or the word “organic” on their product labels.