We’ve all turned up our noses at the weird snobbishness of stamping an “organic” label on anything and everything. Who cares if our soap is 83% organic, or if our off-brand Goldfish cracker ripoffs bear the weight of an organic label?
It’s easy to sneer, but there’s truth to the idea that not everything that’s branded organic is really all that different from the (typically much cheaper) non-organic version. So how do you sort out when it’s important to buy organic and when it’s just marketing?
Wait, those organic labels aren’t ALWAYS just marketing?
First it’s probably important to explain just what the label organic means. It isn’t like, say, “all-natural,” because the word “organic” has legitimate government regulations enforcing specific rules. The US Department of Agriculture has a division which decides exactly what makes each individual item organic, a varied process that can require everything from crop rotation to a minimum amount of cage space for animals.
In terms of produce, organic certification generally requires a few things. Organic fruits, vegetables, nuts, and grains are forbidden from using synthetic pesticides or fertilizers, cannot be genetically modified (in a lab; we won’t get into the whole argument about whether cross-breeding counts), and must obey a few extra environmental rules (rotating crops to make sure the soil is healthy, making sure nearby water is safe and unpolluted, that kind of thing).
But does all that stuff matter? Isn’t an apple always an apple?
This might sound complicated! That makes sense, because it is fantastically complicated and in fact very annoying. I spoke to Sonya Lunder, a senior analyst for the nonprofit Environmental Working Group (EWG), who researches various chemicals in our water, air, and food. Most of my questions met with some variation on “well…”
Pesticides have been linked with everything from cancer to low IQ scores in children to sterility in men.
EWG has two main lists on its site: the “Dirty Dozen” and the “Clean Fifteen,” which list the most dangerous items to buy non-organic, and the safest, respectively. These lists are based entirely on massive data dumps from the USDA, but they only examine pesticide use. That’s not necessarily a bad way to go; pesticides have been linked with everything from cancer to low IQ scores in children to sterility in men. Pesticides aren’t the only reason to buy organic, but they’re a pretty good one.
EWG’s list seems to find fruits and vegetables with inedible skin (banana, pineapple) to be safer to eat in non-organic forms than those with edible skin (apple, grape). When I asked if “edible skins” seemed to be a danger point, she corrected me.
“I find it difficult to make general rules that work without exception while shopping, so that's why we make the full list available,” she says, referring to apps from EWG that serve as guides to the relative importance of buying organic for hundreds of items.
Can’t I just buy conventional and wash off the pesticides?
There are myriad pesticides that can be applied in dozens of ways. For example! If you peel a non-organic apple, that doesn’t make it necessarily safer, because some apple seeds are dipped in pesticides before planting, causing the pesticide to come up into the plant itself.
Washing doesn’t matter either; for one thing, the EWG’s data consists of measurements of pesticide levels AFTER the fruit or vegetable has been washed. “And sometimes the peel is where the nutrients are, so peeling isn’t the greatest idea, either,” says Lunder. For another, the pesticides are designed to stick to the food; farmers and manufacturers don’t want rain washing it off, so why would sticking fruit under a faucet be any different?
If I can’t wash the pesticides away, can I cook them out?
Sure, sometimes cooking can nuke the potentially harmful pesticides, but to use apples as an example again, neonicotinoids -- used as fungicide to keep apples fungus-free while in cold storage -- are heat-resistant. It’s all, basically, a mess.
Some plants naturally have some pretty powerful anti-pest protections, which can also be the reason we like them. Onions and chile peppers, for example: Their pungent flavor is actually meant to keep bugs away, so not all that much pesticide is needed for them. Feel free to buy non-organic onions.
But it takes an awful lot of knowledge to know which plants have built-in pest protection, so in general, it makes sense to follow the EWG’s guide for produce. You don’t want to bother scouring individual items for the dangers of pesticides. EWG’s lists are helpful and clear. In general, EWG recommends buying organic whenever possible. “If you're worried about budget, prioritize the stuff on the Dirty Dozen list,” says Lunder.
That’s all well and good for fruits and veggies, but what about my burger?
Meat, dairy, eggs, and seafood are much easier. The rules are totally different: Organic meat, dairy, and eggs must all come from an animal that is fed only organic food, that is not treated with regular antibiotics or hormones, and that is given some basic semblance of animal rights. (Organic eggs, for example, can only come from cage-free chickens.)
Antibiotics are probably the big bad guy here. Non-organic farmers regularly dose their healthy animals with antibiotics in order to allow them to survive in the horrid conditions in which they live, especially at concentrated animal feeding operations. Excessive use of antibiotics leads bacteria to mutate and become more difficult to fight off, which leads scientists to create even stronger antibiotics, and the cycle continues until, well, who knows, but nothing good.
Antibiotic-free is a major tenet of organic meat, dairy, and eggs, and it’s a hugely important one. Always -- OK, whenever possible -- buy organic animal products.
Do fish count as animals in this formula?
Seafood is an outlier because, well, there are no organic certifications for seafood in this country. And seafood that bills itself as organic is lying to you, and probably untrustworthy. That’s not to say you can just buy any seafood; check Seafood Watch before buying to make sure you’re not destroying the oceans, which we definitely need to keep around.
My cereal is organic. That’s good, right?
Packaged goods are tricky, too. These foods can be billed as either “100% organic,” which means what it looks like, or simply “organic,” which means at least 95% of the product consists of organic ingredients.
This is a big umbrella, since packaged foods can range from burritos to sausage to cake mix. There are long lists of what they can’t include, like artificial preservatives, which is a big deal for certain meaty products, says Lunder. “People are definitely worried about sodium nitrate and potassium nitrate, which are added as meat preservatives to keep meat looking red,” she says. “There are concerns that those can cause cancer.”
Those preservatives are frequently found in bacon, sausage, and other premade meat products. Organic is definitely the way to go with that stuff, too. But if you’re making a tough economic choice between organic and conventional packaged goods that don’t contain meat, you can probably get away with conventional.
Gah! This is so much to remember!
It’s easy to get fed up with organic certification because it’s confusing, and expensive, and seems to require a lot of research. But it’s actually not as daunting as it appears when you’re first starting to wonder about this stuff. EWG’s apps are good and easy to follow, and eventually you start to get kind of a feel of what might be a problem. Eggs? Always go organic. Meats? Yep. Potatoes and onions? Well, maybe not.
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Dan Nosowitz is a freelance writer who always, sometimes, buys organic. Follow him: @dannosowitz.