Thursday, February 13, 2014

What Does Organic Really Mean?

What Does Organic Really Mean?

The prominence of organic goods has definitely grown in scope since I started on this journey seven years ago. Even though this is due in large part to consumer demand there still seems to be a lot of confusion on what exactly organic means and how it effects our health and the health of our planet. Let's start by looking at the definition of organic from the USDA (United States Department of Agriculture) website:


What is organic?
Organic is a labeling term that indicates that the food or other agricultural product has been produced through approved methods that integrate cultural, biological, and mechanical practices that foster cycling of resources, promote ecological balance, and conserve biodiversity. Synthetic fertilizers, sewage sludge, irradiation, and genetic engineering may not be used.


Did you catch the part about sewage sludge? That is what is being used on conventional (not using organic practices to grow) produce. Throw up in your mouth a little bit? I know I did. Besides the obvious gross factor, the impact of all the synthetic fertilizers, pesticides and herbicides being used is causing havoc on our ecological systems. From Wikipedia's pesticide page:


  • "Pesticides were found to pollute every stream and over 90% of wells sampled in a study by the US Geological Survey".1


  • "Pesticide residues have also been found in rain and groundwater."2



  • "The USDA and USFWS estimate that over 67 million birds are killed by pesticides each year in the US."3


  • "Some scientists believe that certain common pesticides already exist at levels capable of killing amphibians in California. They warn that the breakdown products of these pesticides can be 10 to 100 times more toxic to amphibians than the original pesticides".4


This is just some of the impact these synthetic chemicals have on our environment, which is scary enough- but how do they effect us? From the same Wikipedia pesticide page:


  • "The National Academy of Sciences estimates that between 4,000 and 20,000 cases of cancer are caused per year by pesticide residues in food in allowable amounts." (Yes, that actually says in allowable amounts!)


Three studies back in 2011 showed pesticide exposure from either consumption, inhalation or skin absorption had a more likely chance of fetuses being born with a lower IQ and having memory and attention problems. This is also true for babies already born and small children. The pesticides disrupt the brain's sensitive hard-drive, setting the stage for these issues. Additional studies in 2010 linked pesticides to ADHD (attention deficit hyperactivity disorder) as well.5


Scientist are just scratching the surface when it comes to discovering how exactly these synthetic chemicals are damaging our bodies and their overall long-term effects to the environment and future generations.  With the way politics are played in this country and because of who controls the purse strings when it comes to this type of research, it may be a long time coming before we have any decent amount of evidence against the use of these chemicals.


What we can do now, however, is vote with our dollars. Every time you buy organic fruit or meat you are telling Big Agriculture that you want and expect safe and nourishing food. It may seem like a drop of water in the pond but consumer demand has raised organic industry sales up 9.7% from 2009 to approaching $29 billion in 2010.6 Your vote counts!


Organics can come at a premium. This is due in part because it is more expensive to grow and maintain organic crops- and the expenses get passed down to the consumer. The other part being that there are not many options when it comes to purchasing organic foods.  There is just not a lot of competition when it comes to the selling of organic products. Hopefully once more demand is placed on the industry, prices will start to fall. In the meantime here are a few tips to make organic more affordable:


  • Definitely buy organic if it is in the dirty dozen. has listed the twelve most contaminated fruit and vegetables that even after washing and peeling, still retain a significant amount of pesticides and herbicides. EWG also has an app for your phone so you can have this list on the go, too!
  • If you have to buy conventional produce, wash and peel before eating. Pesticides and herbicides concentrate in the peels and skins of fruits and vegetables.
  • Buy produce in season. It is usually on sale and is much lower in cost then it would be at any other time during the year.
  • With the exceptions of Trader Joes and Meijer's, Whole Foods organic produce is cheaper than my chain grocery store. (Who would have thought?) I have quality issues with Trader Joes and Meijer's produce and would rather pay the $1/lb extra to Whole Foods to have it last longer. That being said, the other two stores do have great deals on organic produce- but it's a crap-shoot on whether or not it is going to last more than 2 days.
  •  Skip the boxed, processed organic items and make your own. This is where the prices can really get inflated. While an organic cookie might be safer than its conventional counterpart, it is still a sugar-laden over-processed junk food. Do not assume organic = health food. (I know- bummer.)
  • Shop outside of your grocery store. By typing in your zip code at you might be surprised to find how many local farms and co-ops are in your area. Knowing exactly where and who is growing your food is the best way to ensure safety and quality. I also found it to be the most economical choice for pastured eggs, milk and raw cheese- the cost is almost half the amount of what I would pay for these goods at Whole Foods. It is important to note that most of these farmers and co-ops are not certified organic by the USDA because it is a time-consuming and expensive endeavor, especially for the small farmer. However,  they still use organic practices to grow and raise their goods. This is usually why these items are priced more competitively than the organic products with the USDA seal.


This all can be quite overwhelming at first and beyond stressful if you are on a tight budget. Remember that stress and worry will kill you faster than a non-organic diet will. Staying away from processed foods (organic ones too!), eating as fresh as possible and organic when you can will go a long way towards your health. Be happy for the changes you make today, be excited for the changes you plan for the future and make sure to check back in for more tips and recipes to make this lifestyle more affordable!




  1. Gilliom, RJ, Barbash, JE, Crawford, GG, Hamilton, PA, Martin, JD, Nakagaki, N, Nowell, LH, Scott, JC, Stackelberg, PE, Thelin, GP, and Wolock, DM (February 15, 2007), The Quality of our nation’s waters: Pesticides in the nation’s streams and ground water, 1992–2001. Chapter 1, Page 4. US Geological Survey. Retrieved on September 13, 2007


  1. Kellogg RL, Nehring R, Grube A, Goss DW, and Plotkin S (February 2000), Environmental indicators of pesticide leaching and runoff from farm fields. United States Department of Agriculture Natural Resources Conservation Service. Retrieved on 2007-10-03


  1. Miller GT (2004), Sustaining the Earth, 6th edition. Thompson Learning, Inc. Pacific Grove, California. Chapter 9, Pages 211-216


  1. ScienceDaily (June 25, 2007), Breakdown products of widely used pesticides are acutely lethal to amphibians, study finds. Retrieved on September 17, 2007






  1. Awesome job Kate! I will be an avid follower! Can't wait for your next installment!

  2. Hi Laura- thanks for the support!

  3. Jeff and I are always talking about GMO and (evil scary music) MONSANTO. I am so disturbed by how much people don't know or even seem to care about what is happening to our food!!! I think a lot of people assumed GMOS were something that was possibly going to happen in the future not realizing it has already been in our food for awhile.

  4. Hi Mindy- let's get the word out on GMO's!