Your guide to healthy living ...

Defining Organic

Organic foods are scientifically proven to be richer in nutrients than their conventionally grown counterparts. But perhaps an even greater benefit is the absence of chemicals. To be classified as organic, produce must meet stringent quality standards during its growth and processing. For fruits and vegetables, this typically means the use of alternatives to synthetic pesticides and fertilizers. Also, it must not be irradiated or genetically modified. For meat, the general guidelines require that livestock not be injected with growth hormones or antibiotics. The feed for the livestock is regulated which further improves the quality of the meat. For processed foods, there may be trace ingredients that aren’t organic. A minimum of 95% of the product must consist of organic ingredients in order for the product to be marketed as organic. Or in some cases, organic ingredients will be explicitly identified. To differentiate, “all natural” usually means that the ingredients are based on conventionally grown produce and don’t include any additives or preservatives. A more detailed account of USDA requirements for organics can be found at A side benefit to organically grown produce is that it’s sustainable and better for the environment. Another form of organic that's less often heard is biodynamic. Biodynamic agriculture attempts to maximize sustainability of its produce by combining a select group of vegetation, plants, and elements in a symbiotic relationship. The best example I've seen is at the Benzinger wine vineyards. Companion planting and good insects are used to keep bad insects in check. Sheep are used to fertilize the grape vines, and they eat the plants (not the grapes). The site where grape vines are planted is carefully selected, based largely on soil composition.

To regulate the growing organic food industry, certified products are controlled and distinguishable by the following logo:

USDA Organic symbol will be visible on label, and will most likely show 1 of their accredited certifying agents

Another way to distinguish organic fruits and vegetables is they will have a PLU (a 5 digit number) that begins with "9". Conventional produce begins with a "3" or "4", and genetically modified (GM) foods have a prefix of "8". Note that according to the International Federation for Produce Standards, it is not mandatory to label foods as GM. Buying organic is the safest way to ensure your produce is not genetically modified.

In contrast, conventionally grown fruits and vegetables may exhibit the following characteristics:

  1. Residues from dozens of different chemical pesticides
  2. Less nutritional value since they’re forced to grow quickly
  3. Grown using chemical fertilizers or human sewage sludge
  4. Genetically modified (GMO)

What is GMO?
Genetically Modified Organism (GMO) or Genetically Engineered (GE) is defined as any product in which the DNA has been altered. The FDA would disagree, but research findings have documented the dangers of GMO. Many news reports covered the 2006 incident with Monsanto’s GMO variety of corn and its link to cancer. The GMO variety of produce cannot be sold in the organic market. However, it's used in many everyday foods, and farmers are not required to disclose when it's genetically engineered.

The genetically engineered food crops include soybeans, corn, cotton, canola, and papaya - and their many forms. For example, GMO soy may come as soy milk, tofu, soybean oil, soy sauce, soy lecithin, and tempeh among others. What's alarming about soybeans, corn, and canola in particular is how pervasive they are - both in processed foods and as a percentage of market yield in comparison to non-GMO varieties. The concern here is that genetically modified crop fields have been known to contaminate non-GMO fields that are a considerable distance away. Consequently, even consuming varieties that aren't genetically engineered may be subject to genetic pollution.

The chart below shows the most commonly genetically engineered crops and the percentage modified in the U.S. market (updated 4/30/2014).

% GMO in U.S.
Hawaiian Papaya
Golden Rice
0%, but avail soon
Sugar Beet
Zucchini & Squash
Alfalfa unknown

If you're interested in avoiding GMO foods, there are fortunately some options. You could of course avoid these foods all together, but that may not be practical. Some food packaging might claim "non-GMO" or "GMO free". Although the only way to be certain that packaged foods are GMO free is if they are a participating vendor of the Non GMO Project. Non-GMO Project is an independent non-profit organization committed to verifying the purity of foods from GMO ingredients. Look for this symbol on food packaging:

Indicates the food product is verified by the Non GMO Project to be over 99.1% GMO free.

To learn more about selecting non-GMO foods at the grocery store, download the Non-GMO Shopper's Guide published by the Institute for Responsible Technology.

More Definitions

  • Sustainability - meeting present needs of natural resources without affecting future availability. Fish are often farmed sustainably. This can be eco-friendly as long as the farm doesn't pollute surrounding waters and promote disease for wild species.
  • Biodynamic - an advanced form of organic farming that attempts to maximize sustainability of its produce by combining a select group of vegetation, plants, and elements in a symbiotic relationship.
  • Genetically Modified - Genetically Modified Organism (GMO) or Genetically Engineered (GE) is defined as any product in which the DNA has been altered.

Source: USDA, 2012 Adoption of Genetically Engineered Crops in the U.S.