“Foods which are classified or labelled as organic were once only found in health food shops, but these days they are found in a wide range of food outlets from major supermarkets to small specialty stores. So how is a food classified as being organic, what are the differences between organic and the conventionally grown alternatives, and is organic any healthier?
What does organic mean?
The term organic when applied to foods suggests that these foods are farmed in a more sustainable way and produced to promote a better ecological balance and conserve biodiversity.
Most organisations regulating organic products maintain the food is grown/processed without -
Most synthetic fertilisers & pesticides
Some medicines (e.g. antibiotics)
Food additives and most synthetic chemicals.
Organic food is typically not genetically modified, nor exposed to radiation (1).
What does organic farming mean?
Conventional farming in the past has focused on increasing yields but this is often at the expense of the animals and environment. Increased yields have largely succeeded due to the use of chemicals and synthetics to maximise the yield of crops. This success can come at the cost of altering the natural environment including the biodiversity of the soil (2).
Organic farming follows a holistic approach which aims to improve the soil and environment, as well as the surrounding flora and fauna (3). Organic farming aims to grow food ‘naturally’ without the use of routine synthetic pesticides and fertilisers, protecting the soil and the environment as a whole and in turn producing healthy, nutritious food (4).
Is organic food better for me?
There is some limited evidence which shows there are possible increased nutrients in organic food compared to conventionally farmed food. A few studies have shown that organic produce may have slightly higher antioxidants and flavonoids (compounds that can protect our cells from damage) (5). Similarly, the lifestyles required for certified organic livestock to live can result in higher levels of omega-3 fatty acids (a heart healthy fat) to be present in animals and their by-products (milk, eggs, cheese) (5). While it appears organic food may have slightly more nutrients such as antioxidants and omega 3s, there is very limited research to show whether organic food is associated with better overall health outcomes (5).
Does ‘organic’ and ‘natural’ mean the same thing?
In short, no; they are different. A ‘natural’ food claim often refers to a product that has no artificial colours, flavours or preservatives (6). ‘Natural’ does not imply the methods and processes to grow and produce the food have met the organic criteria. Similarly, food labels such as ‘free range’ and ‘hormone free’ do not suggest the farmer has followed all the processes required for an organic certification (6).
How do I know if my food is actually organic?
The easiest way to know if your food is truly organic is by searching for certified organic labels. Certified organic products have been inspected and certified to ensure they meet organic farming standards.
Where can I look for certified organic products?
Head to www.myWellabee.com to discover all the certified organic options at your nearest retailer.
Ministry of Primary Industries, New Zealand (2021). Growing, Processing and Selling Organic Products in New Zealand. https://www.mpi.govt.nz/agriculture/organic-product-requirements-in-nz/growing-processing-and-selling-organic-products-in-new-zealand/ Accessed 4 September 2022.
Stonybrook University (2021). Sustainable vs. Conventional Agriculture. https://you.stonybrook.edu/environment/sustainable-vs-conventional-agriculture/ Accessed 4 September 2022.
U.S. Department of Agriculture (2015). Fact Sheet: Introduction to Organic Practices. https://www.ams.usda.gov/publications/content/fact-sheet-introduction-organic-practices Accessed 4 September 2022.
BioGro, New Zealand (2022). https://www.biogro.co.nz/organic-faqs Accessed 4 September 2022.
Brantsæter AL, Ydersbond TA, Hoppin JA, Haugen M, Meltzer HM. Organic Food in the Diet: Exposure and Health Implications. Annu Rev Public Health. 2017 Mar 20;38:295-313. doi: 10.1146/annurev-publhealth-031816-044437. Epub 2016 Dec 15. PMID: 27992727. Date accessed 4 September 2022.
U.S. Food an Drug Administration (2018). Use of the Term “Natural” on Food Labelling. https://www.fda.gov/food/food-labeling-nutrition/use-term-natural-food-labeling Accessed 4 September 2022.