This story is part of Road Trip 2021, CNET's coverage of the push and pull to manufacture more products in the USA.
I spent two summers working on an organic farm near Nashville. During that time, I witnessed firsthand the meticulous cultivation of food as it traveled from the soil to a customer's hand. I learned how to produce the food that feeds communities across the US.
Before working there, I'd say I was obsessed with organic food. Trusting that it meant only wonderful things for the human body and the environment, I made sure everything I ate had the organic label. Plus, the process gives farmers more freedom. Even though I'm still a fan, I found that organic food isn't always healthier. And it's not always worth the higher price.
As part of CNET's Made in America series, I want to lift the fog on the food that's being grown in the US. From health to costs, there are a lot of rumors floating around about the concept of "organic" that may seem simple. It required some personal experience and research to find out the truth. According to a 2019 report from the Food and Drug Administration, domestic farmers provide about two-thirds of the vegetables we consume and just less than half of the fresh fruit.
Here are eight organic food myths and what you really need to know. It could just improve the way you do your weekly food shopping.
1. Organic food is better for you
Standards for growing organic produce, a $62 billion industry in the US as of 2020, include a set of cultural, biological and mechanical practices that support the cycling of on-farm resources, promoting ecological balance and conserving biodiversity. And yes, studies have found that there are higher antioxidant levels in organically grown foods. There's also evidence that organic food has lower toxic, heavy metal levels and less pesticide residue, with organic eggs, meat and dairy products containing more good-for-you omega-3 fatty acids.
But that's not always the case. Even processed foods, snacks and junk food labeled as USDA organic should still be consumed in moderation. The green label doesn't automatically make a food healthy. For example, organic peanut butter cups still have high sugar and fat content.
2. Organic fruits and vegetables taste different
Organic advocates insist that organic food tastes superior to conventional. But they're not always correct.
Though studies show the higher nutrient and antioxidant levels in organic food may be linked to having a more distinct, signature taste, food production is much more complex. It spans the entire globe, and different places bring different weather, soil and farming methods. Those variables are more likely to bring a vast range of quality and flavor. Rely on personal preference or experience instead of just looking for a label.
3. Organic food is pesticide-free
Organic doesn't mean 100% pesticide-free, but it does mean that any farming substances used must be completely nontoxic and safe. Organic farms rely on the PAMS system (prevention, avoidance, monitoring and suppression) -- which is a preventative protocol against pests, disease and weeds -- to use as few pesticides as possible, if they have to use them at all. However, if the first three steps aren't sufficient, farmers can use substances approved by the US Department of Agriculture to ward off unwanted pests, weeds or disease.
Those substances include pesticides made up of naturally occurring microorganisms and insecticides naturally derived from plants. And there are synthetic substances that are safe to use. See the USDA's National List of Allowed and Prohibited Substances for a deep dive.
There's also a chance that the type of produce you're consuming can free you from worry about pesticides. Produce like pineapples, avocados, onions and more are renowned by testers each year for their lack of pesticide residue due to thick or inedible skins that provide a protective layer. These foods are also washed or peeled before testing, which removes most of the pesticide residue.
4. Organic food doesn't have additives
It's not just produce that you'll see labeled as organic in the grocery store. You can find the label on things like organic pancake mix, as well as crackers and other snacks. But even though a bag of chips has the green USDA stamp of approval, that doesn't mean every crumb has organic origins.
For a processed product to be certified organic, a minimum of 95% of the product (excluding salt and water) must be made from organic ingredients and the remaining portion must be made from USDA-approved substances. These nonorganic additives can be approved by the National List of Allowed and Prohibited Substances for two common reasons.
First, some nonagricultural additives may be necessary for some foods, such as citric acid or baking soda in chocolate chip cookies. Also, some additives aren't commercially available in the form producers need them. In that case, a nonorganic alternative can be used instead, but only as long as it's on the USDA's list of approved ingredients (like carrot juice coloring or fish oil).
5. Organic food is just as good as natural food
The USDA has distinct criteria for a food to be labeled organic. As a USDA spokesman explained, foods must be:
- Produced without excluded methods, which are conditions not possible under natural conditions, like genetic engineering or ionizing radiation.
- Produced using allowed substances. Meaning that only acceptable things from the National List of Allowed and Prohibited Substances can be used in manufacturing.
- Overseen by a USDA-authorized certifying agent, which means production must follow all USDA organic regulations.
The USDA has murkier guidelines for items labeled natural.
For meat, eggs and poultry, they must be minimally processed, with no artificial ingredients. Other foods can be labeled natural, but the USDA has no standards or regulations for them. That means it's up to a manufacturer to assert that its natural products are free from artificial flavors, colors or preservatives, as per the FDA's general policy on the term.
For example, a strawberry flavored protein bar may be labeled natural but contain actually no trace of real strawberries.
The bottom line: Natural means nothing beyond producers' promises -- you'll have to take their word for it.
6. Everything has to be organic
If you're an avid organic shopper and think absolutely everything has to be organic, think again. Though major stores may sell organic and conventional versions of the same product, sometimes the organic label isn't worth the extra cents or dollars, especially if you're on a budget.
Foods with thick or inedible skins don't have to be organic because they'll have little pesticide residue, as I mentioned earlier. And just as the USDA washes produce before testing, so should you at home before eating. Every year, the Environmental Working Group, a third-party organization that conducts annual tests on a variety of foods for pesticide residue levels, reports which have the most residue (the Dirty Dozen list) and the least (the Clean Fifteen).
A good takeaway: Buy the Dirty Dozen produce organic, and buy the Clean Fifteen food conventionally. That way, you can shop organic where it matters and save money where it doesn't.
7. Organic food is too expensive
Though the price gap is closing, organic food typically costs more than conventionally grown products (about 7.5% more in 2018). There are several reasons for this:
- It costs money to be certified organic. Application, inspection, annual and other fees to maintain a certification can add up. According to the USDA, organic certification can cost anywhere from a few hundred dollars to several thousand.
- Organic farming is much more labor intensive due to things like crop rotation for soil fertility, higher livestock standards and required pesticide regulations.
- Marketing and distribution-chain costs are higher for small quantities of food compared with when it's produced in huge volumes.
- Organic food has a limited supply compared with its high demand.
Many of the largest grocery chains have their own generic brands of organic products, such as Publix's Greenwise, Walmart's Great Value Organic and Safeway's O Organics. They still have the green USDA seal as independent organic brands, but they generally cost less. So, if you're on a budget, they're a good swap to make.
There are also companies that deliver organic produce and products to your door, like Misfits Market and Thrive Market, at a discounted price. And as I said, buying only from the Dirty Dozen list will keep more bills in your wallet.
After two summers of selling produce, I'm a firm believer that people of every lifestyle can budget to shop organic -- from fresh whole foods to packaged goods. I met regular shoppers of every background and budget. Shopping organic isn't an exclusive club for the wealthy; it's for whoever gets there first before the shelves and stands are raided!
8. Organic farming is just a new trend
Organic agriculture was actually the norm for thousands of years. Over the last century, though, the introduction of synthetic pesticides and genetically modified organisms in agriculture changed farming practices drastically.
After decades of increasing concern over GMOs, Congress passed the Organic Foods Production Act in 1990. This created a national standard for organically produced food and materials.
However, the guidelines for what's truly "organic" as we know it today were only really established in 2002 when the OFPA board members wrote in finalized rules and regulations. Now there are strict standards a producer must follow to brandish the green seal.
3 tips to keep in mind when going organic (or not)
Whether you choose to buy organic, here are some good general practices to follow when making your trek to the grocery store:
- Read labels. Know that natural doesn't promise you anything, and that organic doesn't always mean healthier.
- Scrub or wash produce to remove any pesticides. Natural or toxic, there may be some leftover residue you don't want to consume.
- Buy produce in season. It's going to be the freshest!
The information contained in this article is for educational and informational purposes only and is not intended as health or medical advice. Always consult a physician or other qualified health provider regarding any questions you may have about a medical condition or health objectives.