Saturday, January 22, 2011

organic…what does it really mean?

It’s currently –3 outside. It may warm up to 0 degrees by lunchtime. Lovely. But I can’t complain about this view…


It is one of my goals to watch the sun rise one of these mornings. I’m pretty good at catching the sunsets, but there’s just something about seeing the sun rise before the day starts…

Cold weather calls for warm soup. This kale and potato soup is a perfect way to thaw after…walking out to your mailbox. Ha.


I had this tidy little post written up about organic food and the dirty dozen, but after reading a chapter on the topic in Michael Pollan’s book, The Omnivore’s Dilemma, my thoughts have changed.


Pollan presents two different views of ‘organic.’ It can be:

  • a labeling term to identify food that meets USDA standards as described below.
  • a philosophy; a way of growing food that most closely mimics nature.


A little trip to the USDA’s website revealed this information:

  • 100% organic: must contain only organically produced ingredients and processing aids.*
  • organic: must consist of at least 95 percent organically produced ingredients;* remaining product ingredients must consist of nonagricultural substances approved on the National List.
  • made with organic ingredients: 70% organic ingredients; can appear on the front of package, naming the specific ingredients.
  • contains organic ingredients: contains less than 70% organic ingredients.

*excludes water and salt; can be labeled with USDA organic seal


Most of us view organic food in the context of the first definition. It has met certain criteria; therefore, we view it as safe and environmentally responsible to eat. However, many organic farms are starting to follow the factory farm model and no longer fit into the second definition of organic.


While they do not use chemical pesticides, they grow so many crops that the land is depleted, and they must use artificial means to put nutrients back into the soil. While they do not treat their animals with hormones, organic farmers may still confine them to small spaces and feed them “organic grain,” when the animals are naturally meant to digest grass.


The produce you find at Whole Foods is not likely from small farmers; it is more expensive to deal with these farmers, and they do not grow enough produce to stock a grocery store. Instead, your produce may have come from a mega organic grower somewhere across the country.


So…what does this say about the farming model and the benefits of purchasing organic food?

  • there is still value in using organic methods to farm vs. hormones and pesticides.
  • the closer organic farming moves toward factory farming, which is not a sustainable practice, the more it becomes harmful to the environment.
  • seeing ‘organic’ as a philosophy vs. a labeling term changes the way we view products like organic tv dinners, organic cookies, and organic high fructose corn syrup (???!!!).

Personally, I find it more beneficial to purchase food from local farmers, since I can find out firsthand how they grow their crops and raise their animals. I know that is not possible for everyone, and it’s one of the things about modern culture (as in, most of us cannot choose farming as a viable occupation) that has also changed our food system.

Thoughts? How do you define organic food?



  1. I define organic food as something that is produced naturally, with no artificial ingredients OR methods. This is why I choose to buy grass fed beef vs organic beef. I do not care if it's organic, but the cattle are raised the way nature intended.

  2. Organic food definitely isn't 100% "safe" or "healthy." To me though, if I have any chance to eat less pesticides, chemicals, etc., I'm going to take it. A little difference is better than none.

    That said, buying local is just as important. Many local farms use organic farming techniques, but can't afford to actually get certified. It's really important to talk to the farmers at the market. This goes for meat and dairy as well!

    We have a once-a-month winter farmer's market that I go to, but it is easier in the spring, summer, and fall. I plan to get 100% of my produce from the markets and am considering signing up for a CSA.

    And just a note about Whole Foods - they do try very hard to sell produce and meat from local farms. They will usually have signs telling you what's from your state. Of course it's not as good as buying from the farmer himself (I'm sure WF takes a hefty cut), but just because it's at WF doesn't mean it's traveled thousands of miles to get there. I occasionally buy pork at my WF because they get it from a farm less than 100 miles away, and have all the info about the farm handy!

    Overall it's just really important to READ labels and signs, ASK questions about your food and where it came from, RESEARCH local markets and shops in your town, and LEARN about your food! :)

    Sorry for the lengthy comment, but this is kind of what my blog is all about haha

  3. My dilemma is when our farmers market is not going on, should I buy the more expensive "organic" grocery store produce or just buy conventional. Any thoughts on this?

  4. @emma: I think it's always good to buy the dirty dozen organic if you can ( It might not be local, but at least it doesn't contain pesticides. :)

  5. i like organic but get both i agree local farmers is best love your informative posts and wow what a sunset gorgeous

  6. I define it as being used w/o pesticides and because i don't like supporting the big groups/farms that provide food to places like WF I joined a co-op of sorts to get local (ie w/in 50-80 miles) and organic foods...and the ygive you all the contact info for the farmers so you can talk to them if you like!

  7. This is soo interesting. I agree with what you say and I am trying to act on it but I 'm not sure I always make the right choices when faced with dilemmas. And I also don't know how can I tell if the local farmer is telling the truth about how they grow their veggies.Do you have any suggestions? I would greatly appreciate it.

  8. Organic HFCS? Really?! Haha and I have always thought organic meant farming without the use of pesticides or any unnatural fertilizer type things. Beautifullll sunset photo!

  9. Sometimes I am stuck in science mode and organic is made with carbon, LOL! But otherwise I remember the other use of the term, which is interesting because pesticides themselves are organic compounds. It makes me curious to know who came up with the naming for this. I agree with you, and local is the way to go in my book. They often are organic, may not label as such, but in my opinion, the reduced travel and transport time is a plus for the environment too and supports local economies, blah blah blah, I know you know this anyways, but to me there is often a greater benefit to local.

  10. You made some great points! I totally agree!

    Right now there are no farmer's markets open in my area (ill keep searching!) So I drive 2.5 hours northwest to go to whole foods and buy their in store local meats and seafood. My husband and I decided we would no longer allow meat in our household unless it was pasture raised and grass fed with higher standards than most meats available today. They have local pasutre raised beef and local shrimp... so I will allow those foods to come home.

    Other than that, the only organics I'll spring for are the dirty dozen. Though i'm dreaming of spring and farmers markets! Thats where I really would like to shop!

    Have a great weekend!

    Jenn @ Peas & Crayons

  11. Organic high fructose corn syrup?! Oh my gosh... people are such suckers, I'm sure they can convince someone that it's good for them!

  12. I like the idea of eating locally, rather than organically from a big store.

    This all being said, how do you eat locally in central Illinois in the dead of winter??

  13. Wonderful post Emily. It's funny, I'm about to post an organic post myself!! I wrote a post about which foods I buy in organic varieties.

    I loved the chapter on organic foods in Omnivore's Dilemma. It was the one that interested me the most. Some of the things he said were just so startling. And how weird is it that people feel "better" about "organic HFCS"?!?! So lame.

  14. now that the government controls the word 'organic', will they ever stop? I know longer use or think of that term and choose to just grow my own food and be done with it.

  15. Hmmm I guess I define organic as something that contains carbon... Oops bad science joke?! Hahah. In all seriousness I define it as something without pesticides or at least chemical pesticides

  16. I feel being an informed consumer is important. I make it a point to introduce myself to farmers, ask questions and visit their farms. It's been interesting the range of answers when I ask the simple question "Do you spray?" They run the gamut of a straight forward yes or no to "we spray a little." There was one that was amusing, "No, we only spray a little." That last one was really clear, wasn't it?

    There have been a couple of experiences I had that made me appreciate the organic label. Not one, but three farmers have told me that do not spray, only upon visiting their farms, I found out otherwise. There's one farm in New Jersey, Phillips, that even claims on their website that they use Integrated Pest Management (IPM), a technique that seeks to minimize the amount of pesticides. But when I visited their farm, and asked the guys whether they sprayed, they practically laughed at me, and told me that they spray every Tuesday. When I walked their orchards, the apples where so caked with pesticides that there were white rings on the bottom on the fruit. This was an unfortunate experience, and it really made me cautious. It takes a long time to visit these farms and gather this information. I'm still not sure what to think of my experience with some of the farmers, but I have a handful of good farmers that I can trust. The best advice I can give is to ask questions and visit the farms.

  17. Great post-it's interesting when some people say "oh it's organic so it's healthy" I leave it at that and don't question their thought process-it'd be interesting if people really knew though!

  18. -3 degrees? i don't know how you do it! its 26 here and i'm freezing.
    great post. i think a lot of people don't understand what organic means (not that i know perfectly either, but i've learned a lot more about it recently). i think sustainable and environmentally friendly farming practices are great, I wish it wasn't so hard to tell what "organic" foods are actually grown that way.

  19. You're so lucky being able to see the sunrise and sunsets! I'm jealous!

    great points about organic. For me eating local, seasonal is more important than eating organic. Supporting environmentally friendly farmers is important but there is also benefits on growing in a bigger scale (from the economic point of view). And finally I think "organic" is more a philosophy rather than a label... but only consumers with budget can afford to think about it when choosing produces.

  20. This is a great post - it is definitely better to eat local produce grown organically (or better yet, grow your own, like my mother does!). After that, organic produce sold at store like Whole Foods is still better, in some cases - however, there is a list of foods that are necessary to eat organic to reduce pesticide intake, but also a list of foods, like bananas, that do not need to be organic because the skin protects the fruit from most of the pesticides, etc.
    I believe that, when in doubt, buying local is always best - even beyond the benefits of organic food - it helps sustain our community!

  21. Organic to me is defined as naturally grown ingredients! I know that even though a label may advertise being 'organic', it may not meet my expectations.

    Emily, I posted your results to my vegetable quiz! Check it out. :)

  22. I'm reading the chapter on organic food in The Omnivore's Dilemma right now, and it really made me think (once again) about where my food comes from. I really try to support local farms as much as possible. We belong to a year-long CSA (I know. We are VERY lucky!), and I also buy at Farmers' Markets from farmers I have gotten to know over the years.

    I also want to try to grow more of my own produce (even though we have very little space to do so) and try my hand at canning this year.

    Factory farm organic is not what I have in mind when I think of organic produce. But I know that that's what is usually available in stores to buy. And I do believe that it is better than conventional food for the consumer as well as the environment. I think supporting small, local farms as much as possible is really important. Every little bit helps!

  23. gah I still need to make that soup! great, informative post, as always!! i appreciate your writing!!

  24. Thanks for this info, Em!! I try to buy organic as much as I possibly can... oddly enough, I probably buy less organic produce than I buy other organic products. I guess that's kind of messed up, since I think it's more important for the produce to be organic. I guess it's easier to justify spending $0.30 more on organic beans as opposed to spending up to $3 more for organic veggies. Thanks for this post! :)

  25. There are various kinds of food...but the organic if purely so is best for health.Organic well explained here...we should be more careful reading the labels when buying things.They are worth the pennies if they bring in good health.


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