Department of Family and Consumer Sciences

Organic Foods
By Bethany Fong as written for Food and Culture

     If you have been to a grocery store, walked by a fresh produce stand, opened a magazine, or been to a restaurant lately, chances are you have seen or heard the word organic.  It is no secret that what once was a small operation on experimental farm plots, is now a mainstream phenomenon.  Currently, the organic food business is the fastest growing sector in the agricultural economy (1).  The United States alone experienced over $7 billion in sales of organic foods in 2001, and with an expected 20-24% annual growth, that number could be over $25 billion by 2010.  However, the U.S. is not the only market that is experiencing a boom in the popularity of organic foods.  Global spending on organic foods has already reached $25 billion and the expanding acreage dedicated to organic farming indicates that this will continue to be a growing market in the future (1,2,3).  The intention of this paper is to educate the general public by defining what organic foods are, sharing the advantages and disadvantages of raising and purchasing organic, stating some of the government regulations regarding organic foods, and dispelling the myths of who the organic consumer is.

     To the organic farmer, organic agriculture is a way of thinking; a statement of faith concerning the natural world.  They seek to raise food in accordance with basic biological truths (2).  The goals of organic farming include maintaining a biodiverse crop; keeping soil healthy and fertile for future years; minimizing pollution; producing high quality products; avoiding synthetic fertilizers and pesticides in agriculture; recycling nutrients through biological interactions; and encouraging ecological wholeness (4,5).   Methods used to accomplish these goals are crop rotation, which prevents soil from being depleted of any single nutrient; crop cover, which holds off soil erosion; biological pest control; and the use of regulated animal manures and plant waste as recycled fertilizers (5,6).

     The term organic does not refer to a health claim or a food group.  Organic simply defines a way of growing, processing, and handling food.  It can be applied to  fruits and vegetables, meats and dairy products, oils and spices, grains, and even cotton for linens (5).  The USDA says, “Organic food is produced without using most conventional pesticides; petroleum-based fertilizers or sewage-based fertilizers; bioengineering; or ionizing radiation” (7).  Furthermore, organically raised animals cannot be given any antibiotics or growth hormones (2). 


     There are many nutritional, environmental, economic, and health benefits associated with the consumption of organic foods.  Nutritionally speaking, the USDA does not claim that organic foods are safer or more nutritional than conventionally grown products.  Yet, some studies have found that organic foods have higher amounts of minerals and some vitamins, less heavy metals, better quality protein, and less nitrates (5,6,7).  Organic foods are also more environmentally friendly because they do not contribute to water contamination through soil erosion; and use less fossil fuels in the production process in comparison with conventional farming.  Organic farming has also helped small farms economically by giving them an alternative avenue to compete with larger farms.  Finally, supporters of organic foods claim that the reduced amounts of pesticides and chemicals in organic foods protect children and can prevent cancer, allergies, birth defects, nerve damage, genetic mutation and asthma (8). 

      The disadvantages of organic farming are the expense to the consumer, quality, and availability.  Due to higher standards which require more labor, organic foods can cost between 15-20% more than conventionally produced foods.  Organic markets also have inefficient systems for production, distribution, and sales, which can result in slower moving products.  This means that organic products often have more time to age, causing them to be of lesser quality.  Finally, crop rotation prevents organic produce from being produced all year long, which means that unlike conventionally grown produce, organic foods may not be available during any given season (5,8,9,10).

      There are many governmental agencies that are responsible for the regulation of organic foods.  The USDA is the chief department that defines what makes a product organic and regulates organic claims on packaging.  Two divisions within the USDA that deal with organic foods are the Agricultural Research Service (ARC) and the National Organic Standards Board (NOSB).  The ARC does research to help organic farmers with issues like soil fertility, and finding the best biological pest control or weed manager.  The NOSB was created in 1990 under the 1990 Organic Foods Production Act (OFPA), and is responsible in writing recommendations for federal standards concerning labeling of organic foods and products.  The first set of standards came out in 1998, while the latest standards were just released this fall (1,8). 

      Currently, the USDA has four labels that producers can use on their organic products, which, if misused can result in a fine of up to $10,000.  A product that is “100% Organic” must be comprised of 100% organic ingredients.  “Organic” products  have to be made with 95% organic ingredients.  Products that claim to be “Made with organic ingredients” must  contain at least 70% organic ingredients, and finally a label that says “Product has some organic ingredients” has been made with less than 70% organic ingredients.  (1,7,8).  In addition to federal laws, organic farmers must also comply with local and state health standards.

      There are many stereotypes of what an organic consumer looks like.  Common labels include environmentalists (those who are concerned for the environment), humanists (people who fight for animal rights), hedonists (people who search for premium products that are better in quality and taste), and “health nuts”.  In the movie “What’s Cooking?,” an upper class African-American family purchased an organic turkey for Thanksgiving because they believed that it was better quality than the standard frozen Butterball (11).  I have a middle class Caucasian friend who enjoys purchasing organic vegetables to support local farmers and do her part in helping the environment.  I also know an upper-middle class Korean woman who occasionally purchases organic milk because she considers it the “best”.  Considering these examples, can we really clearly define who the organic consumer is?

      Many studies have tried to answer this question, and none have come up with a solid answer.  While there are some trends, for the most part the organic consumer does not have a specific profile.  A 2001 study showed that 63% of Americans buy organic products some of the time, while 40% expect that organic foods will become a larger part of their diet in the future (9).  In two conflicting studies, one study determined that older, white-collared workers bought more organic products, while another study showed no correlation between age, income, and organic foods.  One interesting study that investigated trends in organic purchases found that older people tend to buy organic for health reasons, while the younger population is more supportive due to environmental concerns.  The same study linked a person’s reason for buying organic with how frequently they made such purchases.  Those buying for health were found to purchase organic foods only on an occasional basis, while environmentalist bought regularly (5).

      Overall, the conclusion that can be drawn from the movie, real life examples, and scientific research is that typical organic buyers can come in all shapes or sizes.  Trying to define the organic buyer is like trying to define what an American looks or acts like.  The movie “What’s Cooking”, tells the Thanksgiving story of four American families: Latin-American, Vietnamese-American, Jewish-American, and African-American .  As the story unfolds, the viewer watches as special ethnic dishes like tamales, spring rolls, kosher foods, and soul food get added to the traditional Thanksgiving fare.  The movie also captures the families functioning in their differing socioeconomic groups, jobs, and family structures.  While the families were as different as night and day, at the end of the movie the viewer learns that these four families live at the four corners of the same intersection.  And though their ethnicities may differ; their home, America, and their nationality, American, is commonly shared.

      This same principle applies to organic food.  Profession, ethnicity, socioeconomic status, income level, education, and political preference do not alter the fact that organic food is for anyone, and a multitude of diverse people are eating organic food.  This is clear through the growing sales of organic food, the increasing amount of land that is being turned into organic farmland, a greater number of retailers and wholesalers who are beginning to carry organic products, and a rise in the number of people who are claiming the benefits of eating organic.  Who knows, with all these factors and the continuing work of the government to set standards for organic foods, it may be possible in the future that the terms “conventional” and “organic” may eventually have the same meaning, just as “America” and “melting pot” have become synonymous.


Work Cited

1) Hunter, BT.  Organic food goes mainstream.  Consumers’ Research Magazine.  2002; 85: 8.

2) Long, C.  Finding truly good food.  Mother Earth News.  2002; 189: 70-72.

3) Associated Press.  Not Quite Pesticide Free.  Environment.  2002; 44: 5-6.

4) Halweil, B.  Organic Gold Rush.  World Watch.  2001; 14: 22-32.

5) Bourn, D, Prescott J.  A comparison of the nutritional value, sensory qualities, and food  
    safety of organically and conventionally produced foods.  Critical Reviews in Food Science and Nutrition.  2002; 42: 1-27.

6) Worthington, V.  Nutritional quality of organic versus conventional fruits, vegetables, and
    grains.  The Journal of Alternative and Complementary Medicine.  2001; 7: 161-170.

7) The United States Department of Agriculture.  The national organic program.  Available
    at:  Accessed October 15, 2002.

8) Lipson, EM.  The Organic Foods Sourcebook.  Chicago, IL: Contemporary Books; 2001.

9) Organic Trade Association.  Organic ABCs.  Better Nutrition.  2002; 64: 64.

10) Kleiner, SM.  Should you opt for organic?.  The Physician and Sports Medicine.  1995; 23:15-16.   

11) Chadha, G.  What’s Cooking, 2000, America, English.


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