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Four Truths and a Lie About Buying Organic

vegetables at a farmers market
Buying organic food can be confusing, but it does benefit the environment — not to mention your health.

by Joseph Pinciaro

We hear it all the time: Buy organic! It's the right thing to do! But is it, really?

As with seemingly everything else these days, it can be hard to know the right choices to make. There's a lot of information available and a lot of people telling us what's best (and on the flipside, hiding what isn't best). If you're still trying to decide whether you should splurge a little and opt for the organic label, you're not alone. Here's a breakdown of what's true and what's not when it comes to buying organic, so the next time you head to the grocery store, you can make an informed decision.

What Does "Organic" Actually Mean?

According to the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA), an organic label "indicates that the food or other agricultural product has been produced through approved methods." These methods include the protection of natural resources, conserving biodiversity and using only approved substances.

Organic farming of livestock must adhere to the USDA organic regulations for the entirety of their lives. This means no genetic engineering, antibiotics, growth hormones or other prohibited feed ingredients. It also means that organic livestock must be raised according to animal health and welfare standards. This includes providing year-round access to outdoor space, fresh air, direct sunlight, clean drinking water, clean and dry bedding, shade, shelter, and space for exercise.

Knowing the facts about organic food can help you make better decisions for yourself and your family. Here are four truths and a lie to consider when you are buying organic.

Truth #1: Not All Organic Labels Are Created Equal

When buying organic, it's important to read the label carefully. According to Brian Zehetner, director of health and fitness at Planet Fitness, the USDA organic symbol typically found on single-ingredient foods, such as fresh produce and dairy products, indicates that the product is at least 95 percent organic.

As for multiple-ingredient foods, an "organic" product is 95-99 percent organic and products "made with organic ingredients" are 70-94 percent organic. Products that are 100 percent organic will be labeled as such.

Truth #2: Organic Food Is More Expensive

It's hard to argue against the fact that organic food is more expensive, but perhaps it's simply the cost of eating well. You wouldn't expect to pay the same amount at a five-star restaurant as you would at a fast-food chain. Organic farming costs more, therefore, so do the products.

Truth #3: It's Best to Buy Locally

How do you feel after a long day of traveling? Being moved around and exposed to different temperatures doesn't do a whole lot of good to produce, either.

Buying locally and in-season is not only (usually) much cheaper, but as Zehetner points out, it's also more eco-friendly. Shipping foods from California to New York — even if they are organic — can have a significant impact on the environment. "If you plan to make organic food part of your 'green' lifestyle, buy locally-grown foods," says Zehetner.

Truth #4: Buying Organic Benefits the Environment

As noted by Stony Brook University, in order to keep up with demand, conventional farmers must use a lot of non-renewable resources, chemicals and land. Organic farming, on the other hand, "aims to produce a number of crops, without the use of synthetic chemicals or fertilizers, while enhancing soil composition and promoting biodiversity." Thus, buying organic punishes pollution and promotes sustainability. It's as simple as that.

Lie: Natural Means Organic

Don't confuse the word "natural" with organic. "Natural" simply means that the food doesn't contain any additives or preservatives. But they could still have been genetically-modified or grown with pesticides. "Eating natural foods is great, but it isn't the same as eating organic," explains Zehetner.