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Making the Best Organic Food Decisions

Written by Office of Sustainability student associate, Jarea Fang

A new year often means a chance to start anew, and for many, new year resolutions involve staying healthy – whether it be through exercise, self-care routines, or by eating more nutrient-packed food. As the COVID-19 pandemic persists, it is especially important that we choose our food carefully, both to provide comfort and to boost our immune systems.  

According to the Organic Trade Association, the United States’ organic product sales climbed 12.4% in 2020, breaking the $60 billion mark for the first time and more than doubling the previous year’s growth. Experts expect this number to continually rise as people grow more aware of the kinds of foods they are consuming to nourish themselves and their families. Thus, there is no better time than now to learn about the USDA Organic label and how to most effectively make purchases that benefit human health as well as the environment.  

What does “Organic” mean?  

The United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) is the only channel in the US through which an “organic” label can be certified. According to the USDA, all certified organic foods are grown and processed according to federal guidelines addressing issues such as soil quality, animal raising practices, pest and weed control, and the use of additives. Organic producers rely on natural substances and physical, mechanical, or biologically-based farming methods as much as possible.  

Different organic foods, however, have more specific standards for what makes them “organic.” Produce, for example, can only be called organic if it has been grown on soil that had no prohibited fertilizers and pesticides applied for three years prior to harvest. Organic meat regulations require animals to be raised in conditions accommodating their natural behaviors (like the ability to graze on pasture), fed 100% organic feed, allowed to forage, and not administered antibiotics or hormones. Processed, multi-ingredient foods are prohibited from containing artificial preservatives, colors, or flavors and require that their ingredients are organic. As for processed foods labeled with “made with organic ingredients,” they only need to be made of 70% organic ingredients, but this is a USDA-required standard that doesn’t allow for “organic” certification.  

Photo of highland cattle by Dominic Dreier

With all that said, is organic food worth investing in? Does having strict standards for their production processes make organic-certified foods inherently more nutritious? Can one go as far as to say that organic foods are always “better” than their conventionally-produced counterparts?  

The Nuances of Organic Food 

The answer is no, or rather, not exactly. Just like not all new year resolutions are realistic and attainable, organic foods are not the perfect one-size fits all solution to healthy diets, cost-effective living, and conventional agriculture. For one, due to smaller supply and higher labor costs, organic foods are often more expensive than many can afford regularly. Organic produce and meat also demand more surface area for farming but result in less output than conventional methods, despite being overall friendlier for the environment. Consistently prioritizing organic products even over greener options like local goods can result in consumers choosing foods that travel over a large distance in order to land in their hands, resulting in a much larger carbon footprint.  

Instead, the most effective way for a smart consumer to engage with organic foods is to make decisions based on what they know and what causes or factors they prioritize most. Here are some examples to consider:  

  1. Concerned for animal welfare? Try cutting back on meat and your consumption of animal byproducts. On the days that you crave chicken tenders and egg sandwiches, however, organic animal products are a better purchase because their livestock are raised according to their natural behaviors and not given antibiotics or growth hormones. 
  1. Worried about synthetic pesticides and your wallet? Look into the Environmental Working Group’s list of “Dirty Dozen” and “Clean 15,” which outlines the conventionally-grown produce that have the highest pesticide levels and those that have the least. This way, you can mismatch cheaper conventionally-grown produce and invest in organic while achieving the best pesticide-free, cost-effective results.  

3. Trying to lower your carbon footprint? Shopping local is the way to go, better than organic products that may have traveled a thousand miles to get to the grocery store. Foods that are local and certified can be found browsing farmers markets, joining a community garden, or even by looking closely at the signs in your grocery store.

A snapshot from WUSM’s weekly farmers market.

Purchasing in-season produce or limiting your meat consumption also works wonders, as even conventionally-grown produce have a lower carbon footprint than meat products. If you’re able to visit a farmers market, ask local producers what growing practices they utilize. It isn’t always feasible for small growers to invest in getting the USDA Organic certification even if they are using organic practices! 

More Resources 

Aside from these three examples, there are infinitely more ways to effectively incorporate organic foods into your diet. The one tip to remember, above all, is to stay vigilant and curious. Constantly ask yourself: Where does my food come from? What kind of farmers and causes am I investing in? How do I align my purchases with my values? And every step that you take in that direction, of course, takes you to a better future both for your health and for your earth.  

For further learning, here are some resources to start (or improve!) your organic journey:  

  1. Community Supported Agriculture, published on the Office of Sustainability website outlines ways for WashU community members to access fresh, healthy, and seasonal food while supporting and connecting with local farmer. Check out WUSM’s very own WashU Farmers Market Mini-Market as well!  
  1. 10 Farmer’s Markets to Visit This Summer, published by St. Louis Magazine also has a reliable list for those who want to shop locally around St. Louis.  
  1. Organic 101: What the USDA Organic Label Means, published by the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA), defines the standards for organic certification in the US.  
  1. EWG’s 2021 Shopper’s Guide to Pesticides in Produce, published by the nonprofit Environmental Working Group (EWG), is the most currently updated research guide by the EWG science team on which foods and vegetables made it on the “Clean 15” and “Dirty Dozen” list last year.  
  1. Organic Foods: What You Need to Know, published by the nonprofit Help Guide contains quick but important tips and tricks about shopping organic, along with helpful charts and graphics.  

And just for fun, here are some local farms to check out!