What is organic food?
Food that has been labeled "organic" has been grown or raised without chemical fertilizers, pest killers (pesticides), weed killers, or drugs.
This means that farmers and ranchers who grow organic food:
Some countries, including the United States, have rules that govern when a farmer or rancher may use the "organic" label. Before a grower can use that label, a government inspector goes to the farm to make sure that the rules are being followed.
Don't assume that food labeled "natural," "sustainable," "hormone-free," or "free-range" is organic. The U.S. does not regulate the use of those labels, so anyone can use them.
What is the organic label?
Picture of the organic food seal adapted from the USDA National Organic Program. Available online: http://www.ams.usda.gov.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) has developed labeling rules for organic foods. A seal and the word "organic" can be displayed on organic foods. This use is voluntary, so some organic foods may not be labeled as such.
Single-ingredient foods. The word "organic" and the seal may appear on fruits and vegetables and on packages of meat, cartons of milk or eggs, cheese, and other single-ingredient foods that are grown or raised organically.
Multi-ingredient foods. All ingredients or some of the ingredients in a food may be organic. Look for the following:
Why does organic food usually cost more?
A regular food item that costs $1 may cost $1.50 or even $2—twice as much—when it's grown organically. There are many reasons for the higher cost, including these:
Although organic food can cost more, you may be able to save money by shopping around.
You may be better off buying from local farms and ranches, whether they're certified organic or not. Many small farms use organic methods but cannot afford to become certified. Food from local farms is also likely to be fresher, which means it will taste better and may even cost less. Visit farmers' markets to find locally grown food.
What do you need to know about organic food?
More and more organic foods are showing up in the produce aisles of local grocery stores. It can be confusing to know when to buy organic versions of your favorite foods. Many people buy organic food because they are worried about the environment. And many people buy organic food to avoid chemicals, especially pesticides, in their food.
You may have these questions about organic food:
How can you avoid pesticides on your food?
You can avoid pesticides by buying organic food. But organic food can be hard to find, and it often costs more.
If you are worried about pesticides but want to save money, you could buy organic versions of only the foods you eat most often. Or you could buy organic versions of only those foods that have the most pesticides when grown on traditional farms.
According to the Environmental Working Group, a nonprofit group that analyzes the results of government pesticide testing in the U.S., these are the 12 fruits and vegetables with the highest pesticide levels, in order from most to least:
© 2009 Environmental Working Group. Adapted with permission.
If you don't want to buy organic food, there are other steps you can take to lower the amount of pesticides on your food:
Remember that eating nonorganic fruits and vegetables, even those with higher pesticide levels, is better than not eating fruits and vegetables at all.
What does GMO mean?
GMO stands for "genetically modified organism," which is a plant or animal whose DNA has been changed in a lab. Scientists can take genes from one type of organism and put them in another. Many people believe that GMOs make food healthier or last longer. Many of the foods in our food supply contain GMOs.
But some people worry that not enough testing has been done to know whether GMOs are harmful. In most countries, foods that are labeled "organic" are not supposed to contain any GMOs.
You may see food labels that say "no GMO," "non-GMO," or "GMO free." This is a claim by the maker that the product does not contain any GMOs. There is some debate, though, about how accurate such labels are. Organic foods may come in contact with GMOs even though the farmer or grower follows the rules for organic farming.
eMedicineHealth Medical Reference from Healthwise
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