In an effort to get more produce for a lower cost, many farmers have come to rely on pesticides and herbicides for their crops. These complex chemicals ward off a variety of bugs and invasive plants that would eat crops or crowd out the intended harvest. The problem is, no one's really certain whether they also damage human health. Certain weed killers, including a chemical called glyphosate, have been linked to cancer and found in detectable levels in various food products, including cereal.
Though the use of pesticides and herbicides is pervasive in the food system, some people are looking to limit their exposure to these chemicals. One way to do so is by eating organic foods.
What's Organic Mean?
To be USDA-certified organic, food items must meet regulations established by the U.S. Department of Agriculture's National Organic Program. Foods must be produced without methods that modify the genetics of organisms or influence their growth and development in ways considered unnatural.
Rebekah Summer, a clinical dietitian with Providence Alaska Medical Center, in Anchorage, says that "there are a few different label variations in the United States" for organic food labels, which correlates to which percentage of the item is organic." Here's what labels mean:
-- 100% organic and/or USDA-organic seal. These items contain certified 100% organic ingredients.
-- Organic and/or USDA-organic seal. These items are made with 95% certified organic ingredients -- 5% of ingredients are allowed to not meet organic standards.
-- Made with organic (food item). This indicates that the product has been made with 70% or more organic ingredients.
-- Specific organic ingredients. Foods with less than 70% organic ingredients may list the specific organic ingredients on the ingredient list of the item.
Susan Berkman, a registered dietitian at the Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center, says that "if a food has a certified organic seal from the USDA, it means that product hasn't been grown using any toxic or synthetic fertilizer, GMOs, antibiotics or synthetic growth hormones, and it's free of artificial preservatives, artificial flavors and artificial colors."
The organic term also extends to livestock and poultry to describe how they've been raised. This includes:
-- Whether organic foods were fed to the animals.
-- Animal welfare, such as the space an animal has to move and whether it has access to the outdoors.
-- The use of antibiotics.
More information about the USDA livestock and poultry standards is available on the USDA website. The USDA inspects farms where food is grown and raised to ensure that the farmer is following the rules and producing organic food.
Alcohol can also be labeled as organic, provided the grains and other ingredients used to produce the beverage have been grown organically and meet the standards set by the USDA.
Though the nutrient levels in organic foods may not be significantly different from those in conventionally grown produce, and the human health effects of residual trace amounts of pesticides on food items aren't entirely clear, the lack of antibiotics used in organic farming might be the bigger reason to choose organic.
Overuse of antibiotics in meat production has been implicated in the development of antibiotic resistance. In January 2017, the Food and Drug Administration fully phased in rules such that medically important drugs -- ones that are used for human health -- are no longer allowed to be used for growth promotion or feed efficiency in livestock. In other words, farmers and ranchers can't use the same antibiotics your doctor would prescribe you for an infection to boost the growth of their animals.
Where to Begin
If you're thinking of switching to eating more organic food items, Summer says "it might be a good idea to start by asking yourself why you're looking to switch. Foods labeled as organic do not eliminate the risk of foodborne illness, and they do not provide significantly more nutritional value."
Nevertheless, if you're looking to boost your intake of organic items, start with foods where the organic label makes more of a difference. Berkman suggests reviewing the " Dirty Dozen" list compiled by the Environmental Working Group. This is an annually updated list of the foods that tend to have the highest pesticide residue:
Another list you may want to review is the EWG's " Clean 15." These are the 15 foods that use the least pesticides or where it may not be necessary to choose organic options because the outer husk protects the fruit or vegetable:
2. Sweet corn.
6. Sweet peas frozen.
14. Honeydew melons.
Top Organic Meal Delivery Services
If you're trying to focus on eating organic foods, a meal delivery service might make things a little easier. The following companies promote using organic ingredients. Not all of them are using the same terminology to describe whether all ingredients are 100% organic or organic at a different level.
Therefore, if you're trying to be strict about eating only organic foods, read all the fine print and check with the company about which meals and ingredients are specifically organic.
-- USDA-certified organic handler.
-- All organic ingredients are clearly labeled.
-- Most meals between 550 and 800 calories.
-- Quick recipes for busy people.
-- Recyclable and compostable packaging.
Sunbasket offers a wide range of meal kit options in its subscription-based delivery programs. The company says it's committed to providing the best organically produced, antibiotic- and hormone-free meats and sustainably sourced seafood. It also "strives to deliver organic produce 100% of the time. Currently over 99% of the produce we ship is organic." If for some reason an item can't be offered as organic, a conventionally produced version will be included, along with a note of explanation.
Most meals can be prepared in about 30 minutes and require basic cooking skills and utensils. Preprepped options reduce prep time with prechopped ingredients. The company also recently introduced fully-prepared oven-ready options that can be heated up and enjoyed. The company offers free shipping on your first delivery.
Sample meal: Italian sausages with spicy green harissa and vegetable skewers.
-- Calories: 470.
-- Prep time: 25 to 40 minutes.
-- Green Chef is a USDA-certified organic company.
-- Fresh premeasured ingredients delivered to your door.
-- Step-by-step recipes and instructions.
-- Most meals are ready in about 30 minutes.
Green Chef offers several menu plans, including plant-based, vegetarian, vegan meals keto, paleo and balanced-living options, as part of its subscription program options. Organic ingredients are used across all plans. Plant-based meals, which are the least expensive option, start at $9.99 per serving for the two-person plan -- one box contains three dinners for two people, or six servings total, per box. It also offers a family plan that includes two dinners for a family of four (or eight servings in total) which costs $10.99 per meal.
Keto and paleo options start at $12.99 per meal, and balanced-living plans start at $11.99. Green Chef delivers to the continental U.S.
Sample meal: pesto panko chicken with mozzarella.
-- Calories: 630.
-- Fat: 23 grams.
-- Carbohydrates: 49 grams (5 grams dietary fiber, 5 grams sugar).
-- Protein: 57 grams.
-- Cholesterol: 125 milligrams.
-- Sodium: 800 milligrams.
-- Ready-made meals, just heat and eat.
-- New menus offered weekly.
-- Offers organic, gluten-free and dairy-free meals.
Fresh n' Lean offers fresh, organic, heat-and-eat meals for a variety of dietary preferences. Recipes feature organic, seasonal ingredients and are free from GMOs and gluten. Meals are also free of dairy (except for keto meals).
The standard plant-based package includes three meals, five days a week and costs $126.00 weekly or $8.40 per meal. There is also a three-meal, seven-day-per-week program that costs $176.40 weekly. Subscribers can order additional meals and snacks a la carte. The company provides breakfast, lunch and dinner options. Shipping is free and nationwide. Packaging is BPA-free and fully recyclable.
Sample meal: cilantro brown rise with grass-fed beef.
-- Calories: 340.
-- Fat: 10 grams.
-- Carbohydrates: 32 grams (4 grams dietary fiber, 5 grams sugars).
-- Protein: 30 grams.
-- Cholesterol: 65 milligrams.
-- Sodium: 420 milligrams.
-- Ready-made, heat-and-eat meals that feature organic ingredients.
-- Choose meals a la carte.
-- Dairy-free, gluten-free, nut-free, low-calorie, soy-free, high-protein and kosher options available.
-- No preservatives.
Aimed at busy people who want to eat healthy, Veestro offers premade organic plant-based and vegan meals delivered to any physical address within the continental U.S. It doesn't currently ship to Hawaii, Alaska or Puerto Rico. Shipping is free for those who subscribe to the auto-delivery option. Meals are shipped in quantities of 10, 20 or 30 for those purchasing the a la carte option or Chef's Choice option. Customers using the Weight Loss Plan option will receive 15 or 21 meals per box. Packaging is 100% recyclable or compostable.
Sample meal: red curry with tofu.
-- Calories: 410.
-- Fat: 17 grams.
-- Carbohydrates: 54 grams (6 grams dietary fiber, 20 grams sugars).
-- Protein: 11 grams.
-- Cholesterol: 0 milligrams.
-- Sodium: 670 milligrams.
Factor_ (formerly Factor 75)
-- Ready-made meals, just heat and eat.
-- Choose your own meals or have a nutritionist do the thinking for you.
-- Subscribers can schedule a free, 20-minute nutritional consultation with one of the company's nutritionists.
-- Bulk order discounts available.
Factor_ (formerly Factor 75) offers paleo, keto and gluten-free diet options that include no processed foods, no processed oils and no refined sugars. Its meals feature high-quality organic ingredients, including grass-fed and free-range animal protein.
Sample meal: pesto salmon.
-- Calories: 770.
-- Fat: 59 grams.
-- Carbohydrate: 18 grams.
-- Protein: 48 grams.
-- Cholesterol 155 milligrams.
-- Sodium: 800 milligrams.
Is Organic Healthier?
There is much debate ongoing about whether choosing organic provides any real, measurable health benefits to humans. Although more research is needed, some emerging evidence suggests it might:
-- In a study of nearly 70,000 French adults, "a high frequency of organic food consumption was associated with a reduced risk of cancer," according to findings published in the December 2018 issue of JAMA Internal Medicine.
-- A systematic review of studies on organic food and health included nine studies focused on humans. Several found a deceased risk of preeclampsia during pregnancy and decreased risk of cardiovascular diseases. However, "the effect of organic food on human health is not convincing enough to recommend widely," according to the article published in June 2017 in the Journal of Community Medicine and Health Education.
-- A 2014 study in the British Journal of Nutrition found that organic produce does contain substantially higher levels of antioxidants than conventionally grown produce.
Whether or not the benefits are truly measurable, the organic label can be a powerful symbol that an item is somehow better. But Berkman notes that organic isn't by default a healthier option. "The nutritional profile of produce, for instance, doesn't change much depending on if it's organic or conventionally grown," she says. "Just because something is organic doesn't mean it's good for you. There are lots of organic snacks that are very high in sugar content and don't provide many nutrients."
It's also important to note that while organic items typically have lower levels of pesticide residue, these foods "are not guaranteed to be void of pesticide residues," Summer says.
When it comes to the environment, buying organic is the better option. "Organic farming practices preserve the soil fertility and water quality, in addition to adding less toxic fertilizers into the environment," Berkman says. "Animals raised to be certified organic also generally have better health -- from less acidic stomach acid to more (beneficial) microorganisms in their intestines from their pasture-raised diets."
Though not all organic meat is specifically-pasture raised, some is. And organic meat comes from animals that had access to the outdoors and enough space to live "comfortably," according to USDA guidelines.
Organic foods can also be more expensive than their conventionally-produced counterparts. This is in part because these items are more labor-intensive for farmers to produce.