Does Organic Really Matter?


If you’re like most consumers, you’ve been hearing for years that organically raised meat and produce are “better,” but you may not be entirely sure why. You hesitate in front of the avocados, wondering if their “healthier” origins justify the higher price tag…and what, exactly, does organic have to do with GMOs? Here’s a quick rundown of exactly what the “organically grown” claim means—and why you should (or shouldn’t) care.

What does the USDA “organic” label really mean?

Let’s start with some basic definitions. The U.S. Department of Agriculture certifies foods as “organic” according to detailed federal guidelines addressing a number of key factors, including: soil quality, pest control, animal raising practices and use of additives. Produce can qualify as organic if it’s grown in soil free of prohibited substances for three years prior to harvest.

Organic meat regulations require that animals be raised in living conditions that accommodate their natural behaviors (such as the ability to graze in a pasture) and fed 100% organic feed/forage without antibiotics or hormones. In addition, USDA organic regulations expressly prohibit the use of genetically modified organisms in growth or handling…so “organic” means “GMO-free” as well. 

Is it healthier for me to eat organic meat and produce?

Now that we’ve established exactly what that higher price tag means…is it really worth it? To help you decide, we’ve broken down the benefits of going organic into five categories—milk, meat, eggs, fish and produce.

MILK: From a nutritional standpoint, organic milk has higher levels of omega-3 fats, which are known to help reduce risk of heart disease, cancer, stroke and even depression—however the quantities are likely too small to be of significance. All milk produced in the U.S. is required to be free of antibiotics, so there is no difference versus conventional milk; the same goes for pesticides, which can still show up in organic milk due to their persistent presence in American soil. Organic milk is linked to lower levels of potentially harmful hormones like rBGH, but as with pesticides, the level of these contaminants does not pose serious health risks.

MEAT: As with milk, organic meat has more omega-3 fats—but still not enough to be statistically relevant. Pathogens like Campylobacter and E. coli are bigger concerns; organic and conventional meat scored about the same for contamination, with adequate cooking being the best solution. For meat, the biggest benefit of organic farming is the feel-good factor, as regulations suggest that these animals may live more humane lives.

EGGS: Multiple USDA studies have not found significant differences in contaminant levels between organic and conventionally raised eggs. As with meat, the argument for organic can come down to how the chickens are treated; the term “free range” indicates only that chickens have access to some kind of outside area.

FISH: While the USDA does not yet maintain regulations around organically farmed seafood, many local, national and international organizations monitor both farmed and wild-caught seafood for sanitation, pollution, contaminants and sustainability, i.e. impact on the ocean’s overall health. We like the Monterey Bay Aquarium’s Seafood Watch App, which helps consumers make better choices when consuming seafood.

PRODUCE: While organic produce is known to have significantly lower levels of pesticides and other contaminants than conventionally farmed fruits and veggies, there is insignificant data about how harmful these residues are over time. The Environmental Working Group keeps an updated list of the “dirty dozen” and “clean fifteen” that is worth checking out, if you have concerns about how many chemicals you’re consuming. And one final note: if you eat a lot of raw vegetables, it’s important to note that leafy greens are the number-one cause of food-borne illnesses—so always wash your greens thoroughly before eating.

So what’s the verdict on organic—IS it worth it?

While many of the studies noted here might seem ambivalent about the specific health benefits of organically farmed meat and produce, we think it’s important to note that the USDA’s organic guidelines were established, in part, to ensure the overall health of the environment as well as individuals—and that’s a long game. While the immediate personal effects of choosing organic over conventionally farmed food might seem insignificant, the idea is to foster a cleaner planet – ensuring it’s there to feed us for millennia to come – while still providing strict quality standards to the food we eat. Verdict: Worth it.

What’s the best place to shop for organic food?

Now for some really good news—thanks to Amazon’s recent acquisition of Whole Foods, U.S. consumers will soon have access to more organic fruits, vegetables, meat, poultry and seafood than ever before. Both Thrive Market and Prana Organic will deliver delicious, healthy snacks crafted from organically farmed ingredients right to your doorstep…as will UrthBox and Graze. And best of all, your Carepoynt membership enables you to earn and redeem Poynts for qualifying purchases with these retailers and ALL of our organically–inclined partners.

Tim Stanley