Organic food benefits at conventional prices

man and girl farming together
March 23, 2016
Leigh Erin Connealy, M.D.

In these letters, you often hear me talk about the importance of eating healthy, natural, organic food.

Organic food is often higher in healthy nutrients. You don’t have to worry about chemicals—like pesticides and herbicides—when you buy organic. And finally, you can be sure that you’re not supporting unsustainable—and sometimes immoral—factory farming when you eat organic foods.

However, most people don’t realize that the term ‘organic’ is heavily regulated—and it can be difficult for small farmers to grab the designation.

And many of the benefits of ‘organic’ foods can be found in offerings that don’t quite fit the USDA’s definition. Often at a substantial discount.

So today, let’s take a look at what, exactly, organic means according to the USDA. And which of these conditions are most important.

Finally, I’ll tell you where you can find foods that don’t get the label, but are just as friendly to your health—and much friendlier to your wallet.

What is ‘organic’ food?

There are six main requirements for food to get the organic label.

  1. They can’t use GMOs at all. There can be no genetic engineering involved in any step of the process.
  2. They can’t be grown using artificial materials, like most pesticides, synthetic fertilizers, and antibiotics. However, there’s a little wiggle room here, so your organic produce might have had a small amount of chemical help.
  3. Plants and animals have to be grown or raised in a way that is sustainable and promotes nature and biodiversity within the area.
  4. Animals have to be free to roam outdoors and live a natural lifestyle. No cage raising.
  5. If a farm grows organic and inorganic foods, they must be kept separate.
  6. Every farm has to have an annual inspection to ensure standards are being met.

There are a number of regulations related to each of these broad categories, but those are the basics.

However, as you can guess, some of these regulations are more important than others.

For instance, natural grazing is extremely important. To give one example, grass-fed cattle produce many more essential nutrients, like omega-3s. Grass and clover are rich in omega-3s, and when cows eat this natural feed, it moves up the chain to you.

But other regulations aren’t as essential—not to your health, anyway.

Annual inspections are good for ensuring compliance, but they don’t make a whit of difference to the health of the food you eat.

And those inspections can be expensive—from a few hundred dollars, to tens of thousands. You can see why a small farmer—doing everything right—might not get that organic certification.

Moving beyond organic

The truth of the matter is that some foods that never get the organic label can be just as good for you as produce or meats certified ‘organic.’ With a little digging, you can find produce that hits 90% of the requirements. And if that 90% is the part that’s important to you, then you can eat it without reservation.

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The best resource here is farmer’s markets. In most markets, the folks who work the land are the same ones selling you produce. Talk to them. Get to know them. Ask them questions.

In most cases, they are only too happy to tell you how they raise their crops and animals. After all, this is their livelihood, and most farmers at these markets take great pride in their product.

Find out exactly what they do on their farm. If they use pesticides or herbicides, that’s a red flag.

But even certified organic food can use some synthetic material. At a farmer’s market, you might find a source that holds itself to a higher standard.

Free-range is extremely important. If an animal eats healthy, it’s more healthy for you.

But again, you might find a farmer who takes this extremely seriously. Some will go out of their way to give their animals a large variety of healthy feed. Again, that can actually be better than certified organic animals that only have access to one or two types of grass.

GMOs are a controversial subject, so make sure you find a farmer that treats them the way you’d like them to be treated.

Bear in mind, some foods—like soybeans—are virtually impossible to get as a non-GMO. Consequently, a farm that grows soy and doesn’t have stringent boundaries won’t get the organic label.

That might bother you, or it might not.

Finally, ask a farmer why they didn’t get certified. You’ll find a large number are unable or unwilling to jump through the bureaucratic red tape, or undergo annual inspections.

If you get to know and trust a farmer, that doesn’t have to be a deal-breaker. If you want to check up on the farm, many farmers are happy to give you a tour of their land.

There is no doubt—organic food is held to a high standard, and you can be pretty sure that you’re eating healthy when eating organic.

But, with a little investigation, you can meet, or exceed, the health benefits implied by the organic label. And often, do it for much less money, as well.


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