Organic food is often revered as the ultimate panacea. Eat organic food and you’re automatically healthy. Unfortunately, it’s more complicated than that and organic isn’t perfect. 

The Organic food movement especially took on a new meaning during Covid: As shoppers searched for healthy, clean food to feed their at-home families. “Our normal lives have been brought to a screeching halt by the coronavirus,” says the Organic Trade Association. “The commitment to the Organic label has always resided at the intersection of health and safety, and we expect that commitment to strengthen as we all get through these unsettled times.” Speaking for myself and the Clean Label Project, after testing thousands if not tens of thousands of food and consumer products, the data proves that the organic promise of less exposure to pesticides holds true. However, organic isn’t without its limitations.

Three-Year Litmus Test: Produce can be certified organic if it’s grown in soil that had no prohibited substances applied for three years prior to harvest.

What qualifies as organically grown?

USDA Certified Organic foods are grown and processed according to federal guidelines. These address among many factors, soil quality, animal raising practices, pest and weed control, and use of additives. Organic producers rely on natural substances and physical, mechanical, or biologically based farming methods. That means age-old practices such as crop rotation with cover crops to reintroduce nutrients back into the soil. It also means newer practices such as releasing beneficial insects to help control pests. Produce can be called organic if it’s certified to have grown on soil that had no prohibited substances applied for three years prior to harvest. Prohibited substances include most synthetic fertilizers and pesticides. 

How does a processed food qualify as organic?

When it comes to processed, multi-ingredient foods, the USDA organic standards have specific rules. Organically processed foods cannot contain artificial preservatives, colors, or flavors. Ingredients must be organic, with some minor exceptions. For example, processed organic foods may contain some approved non-agricultural ingredients, like enzymes in yogurt, pectin in fruit jams, or baking soda in baked goods. Read labels of products to see exactly what it means in your packaged goods. 

So what DOESN’T organic mean?

  • Certified Organic DOESN’T mean healthy.

    Certified Organic is based on an agricultural methodology that is more environmentally friendly. Things like tobacco, sugar-sweetened treats, highly processed foods, and other junk foods can also come from certified organic agricultural processes. Just because it’s labeled as organic doesn’t mean it’s actually better for you.

  • Certified Organic DOESN’T mean no heavy metals.

    A recent U.S. House of Representatives investigation into the levels of heavy metals in America’s best-selling baby foods found several at fault. They include several brands including Earth’s Best Organic, Plum Organics, and Sprout Organic Foods. Toxic metal exposure can be harmful to the developing brain. It’s linked with problems with learning, cognition and behavior. The potential elevated risk of heavy metals in organic is not a recent phenomenon. In fact, a 2005  report from ATTRA, the National Sustainable Agriculture Information Service, highlights that organic products would be at an elevated risk for arsenic contamination. Why? Organic agriculture practices allow conventional chicken litter as compost. Recent studies show that more than 70 percent of the arsenic in uncovered piles of poultry litter can be dissolved by rainfall and potentially leach into lakes or streams. Thus, organic farmers must take care when they handle and apply poultry litter. 

  • Certified Organic DOESN’T require mandatory testing of all products.

    The Accredited Certification Agents inspect farming and processing operations to ensure they comply with organic regulations. The USDA organic standards require the ACA conducts testing on a minimum of 5 percent of a business operation be certified. This means that as many as 95 percent of organic operations may not have any of their products tested for contaminants. These could include pesticides and sources of genetically modified organisms (GMOS). Additionally, the USDA organic standards fall short when it comes to a robust pesticide testing panel. For example, Glyphosate, the active ingredient in RoundUp, is not currently part of the required battery of tests. It is the most commonly used pesticide in America linked to non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma,


    Read the label: Rules allow for organic foods to contain some approved non-agricultural ingredients. Examples include enzymes in yogurt and pectin in fruit jams.


So what’s a concerned consumer to do?

Environmental and sustainability advocacy efforts are addressing these issues. Consider the regenerative agriculture movement. For instance, one pioneer, Polyface Farms uses “pastured livestock and poultry, moved frequently to new “salad bars.” These farming techniques pay off, it says, because they allow for “landscape healing and nutritional superiority.” Overall regenerative farming and grazing practices aim to rebuild soil quality and restore soil biodiversity. While fast-growing, the regenerative agriculture movement is still in its infancy so continue to watch for new exciting developments.

Finally, as always, view your dollars as a vote for the food systems you believe in and use your vote wisely.

–Jaclyn Bowen, MPH, MS

Jaclyn is Executive Director of the nonprofit Clean Label ProjectRead her Smart Lifebites story: Clean Label Project Sets a Higher Bar for Product Safety


Smart Lifebites