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People who are making changes to their diet sometimes wonder, “Is it worth it to buy organic food?” There are many terms that tend to bring up this question: no added hormones or antibiotics, grass-fed, grass-finished, natural, free-range, and others. What do these terms mean and is it worthwhile to purchase items with these claims?

Here are some “quick facts” that help explain what these terms mean:

  1. Organic: Under USDA organic program standards products with an organic claim or the USDA organic seal must be:
  1. Produced without excluded methods (examples: genetic engineering, ionizing radiation, or sewage sludge).
  2. Produced in accordance with the National List of Allowed and Prohibited Substances (examples of prohibited substances include arsenic, lead salts and tobacco dust in crop production and antibiotics in livestock production).
  3. Overseen by a National Organic Program-authorized certifying agent and follow all USDA organic regulations

All certified organic ingredients are noted with an asterisk or other mark.

  1. No Added Hormones or Antibiotics: According to the USDA added hormones are prohibited in the production of all pork and poultry.  The term, “no added hormones” means hormones have not been used in the production of beef. The term “no added antibiotics” means antibiotics have not been used in the production of red meat (including beef and pork) and poultry. 
  1. Grass-Fed or Grass-Finished: There is no standard USDA definition for these terms. This means that they are largely defined by meat producers. Grass-fed generally means an animal has eaten only grass for MOST of its lifetime (may not include time before slaughter). Grass-finished generally means an animal has eaten only grass throughout its lifetime (including time before slaughter). 

Third-party certifications (examples: American Grass fed Approved and Food Alliance) are helpful. The best way to know if an animal has been fed grass for most (grass-fed) or all (grass-fed and grass-finished) of its lifetime is to talk with a local producer who sells meat.

  1. Natural: According to the USDA this term means that a meat or poultry product contains no artificial ingredients or added color and is only minimally processed (produced in a manner that does not fundamentally alter it).
  1. Free-Range and Free-Roaming: According to the USDA this term means poultry has been allowed access to the outside. This is very general and in some cases can mean access only through a “pop hole” without any full-body access to the outdoors. 

The Humane Farm Animal Care’s (HFAC) Certified Humane Raised and Handled label includes specific standards that exceed the USDA and general industry standards. This agency is supported by 65 humane organizations and their Certified Humane Raised and Handled certification has been nationally recognized as the gold standard for certifying animal welfare from birth through slaughter.

The next question to consider is, “Does it matter if I choose these products? If I’m eating healthier foods do they need to fall into these categories”?  Here are some facts that can help:

  1. Foods with the organic label meet most of the criteria of other specialty terms. Beef with the designation of “no added hormones” also carries this additional designation.
  2. A review of the most recent research reveals that organic produce has more antioxidants and lower amounts of cadmium and pesticides than conventional produce. Organic meat and dairy products contain more omega 3 fatty acids (reduce inflammation in the body). A small number of human cohort (group) studies also reveals an association between consumption of organic foods and a reduced risk for certain acute diseases (example: pre-eclampsia) and obesity.
  1. There are currently no long term human studies that evaluate the impact of organic food consumption on chronic disease risk. There are also no controlled studies that evaluate differences between organic and conventional dietary intake. 
  1. Individuals who purchase organic products then to have healthy habits in general. It is unclear what role organic products may play in overall health risk and outcomes.
  1. The terms “free-range” and “free roaming” relate to the treatment of animals and do not specifically address the nutritional ingredients of animal products. 

Although the answers are not very clear, it is well-documented that a diet rich in whole or minimally-processed foods (examples: vegetables, fruits, nuts, seeds, and healthy animal products) greatly enhances human health and well-being. Whether or not organic foods offer a significant advantage is yet to be determined. They certainly carry other benefits and may offer a “nutritional edge” for disease reversal and optimal living as well!