It’s like James and the Giant (Organic) Peach: Just when it seems that the burgeoning market for organic products can’t grow any bigger, it does.
Consumers in the U.S. are getting increasingly savvy, not only about the food they eat but about the products on their bathroom shelves, what they apply to their bodies and what textiles they wear as clothing—and they want organic.
It’s millennials who are pushing the trend. Organic sales topped $47 billion in 2016 with more than half of those consumers young adults aged 18 to 34, according to the Organic Trade Association.1
Millennials are informed about the broader benefits of organic and natural products for the environment, farmer livelihoods and animal welfare. Plus, they care about their own health, paying attention to what they put in and, on their bodies, and educating themselves about the benefits of non-chemical options.
What organic means
You’ve likely seen enough green ink on labels these days to know that marketers have caught on to the organic trend. Buzzwords like “natural” and “organically grown” have been deployed to attract this lucrative and growing market. But not all that glitters is pesticide free.
Most marketing terms have little meaning beyond the label, and are designed to catch the conscientious eye. But if you want the real organic deal, look for the term “USDA certified organic” and the accompanying government seal.
The organic certification program is run by the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), and it is strictly enforced. Standards to earn the seal are clear: crops and animals cannot be grown with synthetic fertilizers, synthetic pesticides or sewage sludge. They can’t be genetically engineered, cloned or irradiated, nor be treated with synthetic hormones or antibiotics. And animals (in the case of organic livestock) must have access to the outdoors.
When it comes to multi-ingredient foods, (like granola, soups or fruit snacks) the USDA organic standards have additional rules—no artificial preservatives, colors or flavors can be used, and only organic ingredients are acceptable (with minor exceptions, such as enzymes in yogurt and baking soda in bread).
Products that earn the official certification bear the familiar seal and the words “USDA certified organic.” You’ll commonly see this on single-ingredient products such as blueberries, eggs and essential oils. More complex multi-ingredient foods use a classification system to rank their organic ingredients. The designation “100 percent organic” means that the food is made entirely with organic ingredients. Foods labeled “organic” have at least 95 percent organic ingredients by weight, with the remaining ingredients approved by the USDA.
Products marked “made with organic ingredients” are at least 70 percent organic. These won’t sport the USDA seal, but they are allowed to tout their organic ingredients on the label. Products with less than 70 percent organic ingredients can still list any single organic ingredients on the back of the packaging, but won’t earn the seal.
There are a few terms that have a nice earthy ring to them, but they are meaningless outside of their marketing value. “All natural” could mean the product doesn’t contain additives or preservatives, but it may have been conventionally grown and genetically engineered. Words like sustainable, healthy, and eco-anything are not regulated by a government agency, and could refer to anything.
Reasons to get on board
Even if you’re critical of trendy movements, there are still bushels of good reasons to consider buying certified organic outside of the vogue factor. Organic products keep pesticides out of the air, water, soil and your body. Currently just one half of one percent of cropland in the U.S. is under organic farming. This means there are still billions of pounds of chemical herbicides and pesticides discharged in the environment every year.
In addition, organic foods taste better, and are better for you in some ways, according to research in the British Journal of Nutrition. Organic fruits, vegetables and grains have several measurable nutritional benefits over conventional crops; they contain higher concentrations of antioxidants and lower levels of toxic metal contaminants like cadmium. The taste of food is improved when it is grown with organic methods, researchers believe, because the added stress of natural predators and a more natural pace of growth allows plants to develop compounds that protect the plant (such as antioxidants) and also happen to be good for the consumer.2
Pesticides kill more than pests. Native plants, birds and beneficial insects get caught in the agricultural crossfire. These plants and animals can find a safe haven on organic farms and collectively provide better balance for those environments. And that applies to the farmers and pickers who bring you those foods, too.
What organic doesn’t mean
When a food is certified 100 percent organic, it may not be completely pesticide free. Organic producers are required to use soil that has been free of most synthetic fertilizers and pesticides for at least three years. That doesn’t mean there are no pesticides.
But organic foods are much less likely to contain pesticides, research has shown. Just 7 percent of organic foods were found to have trace pesticides, compared to 38 percent of conventionally farmed produce in a Stanford study. Other researchers found a 94 percent reduction in health risk attributable to eating organic forms of six fruits normally grown using pesticides.
Organic foods are not necessarily “healthy.” An organic candy bar is still a candy bar, whether the flour and sugar is organically sourced or not. But organic regulations ban or restrict the use of food additives. This may make foods healthier in certain ways. Organic foods don’t always upset their non-organic cousins with nutrient density either. An organic orange isn’t necessarily going to pack more vitamin C than a regular one.
Where to focus your buying
If you are looking for a good place to jump in to organics, start with products that you use in high quantity—especially ones with thin skin. Pesticides are much less likely to get through the tough barrier of an avocado or a banana, so the part you eat is better protected.
But foods such as strawberries, peaches, celery and tomatoes are more susceptible to contamination. Consider buying these types of foods from the organic section of your market. You can also keep an eye on your leafy greens and hot peppers, as they often contain pesticides, herbicides and fungicides that are particularly concerning.
Understanding the USDA organic label, its background and the implications of organic growing can empower consumers to make best decisions about the products they purchase. While our complex food system is rarely as simple as “healthy” or “unhealthy,” savvy consumers know that USDA organic products are a step forward and the best sort of product you can bring from the farm into your home.
Derrick Woods, the founder and CEO of N8 Essentials, has career-spanning experience tackling both big- and small-scale entrepreneurial challenges. His long-term passion is rooted in helping people pursue healthier natural lifestyles with a focus on products that reduce daily exposure to manufactured chemicals with certified organic essential oils. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org or through N8essentials.com.
1 McNeil M. “Today’s Millennial: Tomorrow’s Organic Parent.” Organic Trade Association. https://ota.com/news/press-releases/19828. Published Dec. 2017. Accessed Sept. 2018.
2 Worthington V. Nutritional Quality of Organic Versus Conventional Fruits, Vegetables, and Grains. The Journal of Alternative and Complementary Medicine. J Altern Complement Med. 2001;7(2):161-73.