As time goes on, it seems like the organic section at the grocery store gets bigger and bigger. Have you ever wondered if paying extra for organic foods is worth it? In this article, we are going to be diving into what science has to say about organic foods and looking at some of the rules about organic foods in Canada.
What is the difference between organic and non-organic food?
When I think of ''organic foods'', I think of natural, large green fields and happy animals. By definition, organic foods are produced without using synthetic fertilizers, growth stimulants, antibiotics or pesticides (1). Non-organic food is produced similarly to organic foods but can also use synthetic fertilizers and/or pesticides as well as antibiotics for animals.
How is the term “organic” regulated in Canada?
The term “organic” is protected by the Canadian Organic Standards which is a set of laws put in place by the Canadian Food Inspection Agency (2). These laws include guidelines about organic food production (3). Let's discuss the guidelines for different types of foods.
Have you seen the canadian organic logo before (aka, organic stamp of approval!) ? This logo is protected by law in Canada, and certifies that the food contains at least 95% organic ingredients (4).
What does organic meat mean?
To be certified organic, these standards must respected:
The animals must have good living conditions and their behavioural habits must be respected, they must have access to the outdoors and live in pens of a certain size
The animals must eat organic feed, free from supplements, not chemically altered, with no animal byproducts or synthetic substances
No growth hormones or steroids
No use of genetic manipulation
No drugs (other than vaccines)
No force feeding of ducks and geese (used in the production of foie gras)
Ruminant animals (mainly cows) must have access to pastures to graze (3)
With regards to dairy cows, the same rules apply however antibiotic use is permitted for diary cows as long as the milk produced during the antibiotic treatment and 30 days after the treatment is disposed of (3).
What does organic mean for fruits, veggies or grains?
Organic fruits, veggies and grains all have to respect the following guidelines:
No genetic engineering
No nanotechnology (modification of molecules in the food)
No irradiation (use of irradiation to make fruits and vegetables stay fresh longer)
No synthetic fertilizers
No synthetic pesticides (3)
What does organic mean for transformed products?
For transformed products that are composed of multiple ingredients, here is what must be respected:
Use of at least 95% organic ingredients (4)
No synthetic ingredients added (nitrates and nitrites for example) (3)
Are there any nutritional differences between organic and non-organic foods?
Variability in nutrient content can be due to many factors including how ripe the plant was when it was harvested, the weather conditions during growth, the richness of the soil, the sunlight it received, and this, whether the food is organic or not (5).
In general, there are no significant differences in micro or macronutrients between organic and non-organic foods, (6, 8) however some small differences may be seen. Certain organic fruits and vegetables have been shown to have slightly higher vitamin C, carotenoid and phenolic compound levels (5), very interesting with regards to health as they are anti-inflammatory. Other studies have shown that there are higher levels of omega-3s, in organic beef and dairy due to the cows being able graze on grass (7, 8). In general though, organic foods and conventionally grown foods have very similar nutrient profiles.
How about pesticides?
Organic products have been found to have lower levels of pesticides on them than conventionally grown foods (5,8). However, it is very rare for any foods to have pesticide levels above the safe limits (7,8). In Canada, there is no guarantee that organic foods do not have any traces of synthetic pesticides or any other elements prohibited by the organic standards as these prohibited substances can travel through wind, water or other environmental sources (3).
Are organic foods healthier or safer for us?
There may be benefits to eating organic foods with regards to presence of more omega-3s in organic dairy and beef and certain micronutrients found in produce (8). However if a person is well-nourished, they are unlikely to be missing these elements so these differences will have a very small effect on health (8). If you are worried about pesticides, you may want to consider organic products however in Canada, pesticide use is regulated by the Pest Management Regulatory Agency of Health Canada and they test foods to make sure that they have low enough levels of pesticides (9). Each food and pesticide pair has a specific Maximum Residue Limits (MRLs) that is determined by Health Canada scientists based on the current research (10). The effect of the pesticides is usually tested on rodents, a level called the no observed adverse effect level (NOAEL) is determined from the current studies then the NOAEL is divided by a safety factor of 100 to determine the MRL on our food to ensure that the acceptable daily intake is not exceeded for all members of the population (ex : children, pregnant women) (10). There may be a slightly higher level of risk of antibiotics in conventionally grown livestock (7) but the use of antibiotics is regulated and antibiotics can only be given to livestock (organic or not) with a prescription from a veterinarian (11). In conventional farming, growth hormones are given to beef cattle and are not used for dairy cattle, pork or chicken (12). The Canadian Food Inspection Agency has thresholds for antibiotics and hormones found in food and they conduct tests to make sure that our food is safe (12). There may be a higher risk of organic foods being contaminated with bacteria as the natural methods for pest control may not be as powerful as synthetic ones (7).
Is organic better for the environment?
One of the goals of organic farming is to improve, maintain and minimize the contamination to the soil where the farming takes place so that the soil stays useful longer (3). On the other hand, organic crops for the most part have lower yields than non-organic crops so more land and more resources are required to grow the same amount of food which may have a significant environmental impact (13). The CBC estimates that 70-80% of organic food in Canada is imported so transportation is also something to take into consideration when considering the environmental impact of organic food (14).
Is organic the same as GMO free?
Organic is NOT the same as GMO free. GMO stands for genetically modified organisms. In Canada, organic foods are also free from genetically modified organisms (3). However as with pesticides, there may also cross contamination with pollen or seeds from nearby GMO crops (3) so it is not guaranteed that organic foods are also GMO free.
MYTHBUSTER: You should avoid the dirty 12 !!
The dirty 12 is a list published every year by the Environmental Working Group of the foods with the most pesticides found on them in the USA (15). As mentioned above, in Canada, the use of pesticides is monitored to ensure that consumers are kept safe and that food does not have levels of pesticides above the maximum residue limits determined for each pesticide and food (9). If you are concerned about pesticides on your foods, you can use this list to guide your purchases.
Conclusion – Is it necessary to spend the extra $$ on organic food?
In general, choosing to eat organic food is a privilege and a choice that you are free to make. When it comes to nutrition, there is no significant difference between organic and conventionally grown food. Aim to increase your fruit and vegetable intake in general, be it organic or non-organic produce. To reduce the risk of pesticides on your food, be sure to wash all your produce, to reduce any risk of contamination make sure to safely cook your meat and reduce cross contamination in your kitchen.
Also, You may want to consider choosing local food when it is in season, this increases the nutrients found in the food (6). Furthermore, eating local food decreases the distance the food needs to travel to get to your plate which can reduce the environmental impact of the food we eat.
I hope you enjoyed this article and learned a thing or two!
Marie-Pier Pitre-D'Iorio, RD, B.Sc.Psychology
Thank you Céleste for this great article!
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