Beyond Buzzwords: Making Sense of Organic & Non-GMO Foods

Every day, multiple times per day, we are faced with a choice about which foods we will put into our bodies.  

If this task weren’t difficult enough, after selecting a food to consume, you then have to sift through an expansive range of manufacturers, each producing roughly the same exact product, but with a different set of buzzwords. 

Let’s consider a jar of peanut butter. It’s not a simple question of which brand should be selected. The decision is much deeper. Should you go for the jar labeled “natural?” Or maybe the one with “non-GMO” slapped on the label in a large bold font? What about “organic?”

The above applies to meat and dairy products as well, with the additional consideration of options from “grass-fed” animals. 

It’s quite easy to become overwhelmed by the diversity of options at our disposal, especially when we consider the words on the label.

We might intuitively be attracted to certain products due to their advertisement of specific buzzwords, but lack a proper understanding of what these terms actually mean and if these foods confer any advantage over alternatives.

Common perception is that terms like “non-GMO,” “organic,” and “grass-fed” indicate a food is healthier or more nutrient dense than a conventionally produced option, but does the science actually support this idea?

As we unravel the answer to the question of whether or not this marketing jargon justifies the increased cost, it’s first important to define the aforementioned terms.

What the Heck Does Organic Even Mean?

Unlike most food marketing terms, the FDA does not regulate the use of the term “organic.” 

The National Organic Program (NOP) is the federal regulatory framework governing organically produced crops. The USDA oversees the program and enforces NOP regulations and standards.

Organic is a labeling term that indicates the food or other agricultural product has been processed and produced using approved methods. The organic standards describe the specific requirements that must be verified by a USDA-accredited certifying agent before products can be labeled organic. 

Organic is not an absolute quality. It is a range. While there are general principles that all organic products follow, such as being produced without excluded methods (i.e. genetic engineering), some products are held to a higher standard than others.

For a product to be considered “100 percent organic,” all agricultural ingredients must be certified organic, except where specified on the National List (we’ll come back to this later). Additionally, all processing aids must be organic, and product labels must state the name of the certifying agent on the information panel.

In contrast, “organic” products may contain up to a combined total of 5% of non-organic content. There is also “made with” organic. For these items, at least 70% of the product must be certified organic ingredients.

Organic Production Standards

There are several elements that need to be in place for a crop to be considered organic. This includes, but is not limited to, the use of organic seeds, a land that has not been applied with prohibited substances for at least three years before harvest, defined boundaries and buffer zones to prevent contact with conventionally-grown crops and prohibited substances, and the absence of genetic engineering, ionizing radiation, and sewage sludge in the production process.

To conscious consumers, these criteria might not be much of a surprise, but there are some more nuanced points worth mentioning to be truly well-informed.

According to the USDA, organic crop pests, weeds, and diseases are primarily controlled through prevention and avoidance strategies. If pest or weed suppression becomes necessary, producers often use mechanical and physical practices, such as releasing predatory insects to reduce pest populations or laying down a thick layer of mulch to smother weeds. However, there is a third option.

As a last resort, producers may work with their organic certifier to use an approved pesticide, such as naturally occurring microorganisms, insecticides naturally derived from plants, or one of few approved synthetic substances.

These same principles are also applied to organic livestock production. There is an emphasis on preventive management practices to keep the animals healthy, such as selecting breeds that are well adapted to a particular environment, but certain additives and synthetic substances are allowed as well. 

For example, vitamins and minerals not produced organically can be fed to the livestock in trace amounts. Also, some drugs, such as vaccines, pain medications, and dewormers are allowed

These points are critical to mention because even consumers who consider themselves to be well-informed are under the guise that synthetic substances are never used in the production of organic crops and livestock, but this is inaccurate. 

The National List of Allowed and Prohibited Substances identifies the synthetic substances that may be used in organic crop and livestock production. It also names a limited number of non-organic substances that may be used in or on processed organic products. For reference, this is not a short-list. Those interested can view the specific synthetic substances allowed in production here

Moving on to our next point, organic crop producers must use organic seeds and planting stocks to protect the integrity of their crops. Having said that, organic growers may use conventionally grown seeds when an equivalent organic variety is not commercially available as long as the seeds have not been genetically modified (GM).

The use of genetic modification technology, or genetically modified organisms (GMOs), is prohibited in organic products, but there aren’t specific tolerance levels in the USDA organic regulations for GMOs. 

As a result, trace amounts of GMOs do not automatically mean the farm is in violation of organic regulations. The USDA states that “in these cases, the certifying agent will investigate how the inadvertent presence occurred and recommend how it can be better prevented in the future.” 

The above statement then begs the question, is every organic product 100% GMO free? Perhaps more importantly, does it matter if they are?

GMOs

As we recently learned, GMOs are specifically prohibited in the production of organic foods. Many readers might see this fact as something that makes organic foods undoubtedly superior to conventionally produced foods, but like most things in life, the truth is somewhere in the shade of gray.

GMOs are defined by the World Health Organization as “organisms in which the genetic material has been altered in a way that does not occur naturally by mating and/or natural recombination.” 

Since their introduction to the commercial market in the 1990s, GMOs have received vehement opposition from many consumers based on perceived health risks. 

The reasons for GMO skepticism are likely diverse. Skepticism may stem from intuitive preferences for “naturalness,” which may make GMOs seem less safe and attractive. 

Also, genetic modification techniques are complex and difficult to understand. One survey found that 54% of Americans “know very little or nothing at all” about GMOs.

Concerning this finding, and the general suspicion surrounding GMOs, it’s apparent that the scientific community has experienced significant difficulty explaining concisely to the lay public the biological techniques involved. 

GMO Safety

GM crops are more rigorously tested for safety than any conventionally bred crop. To understand the risk assessment process of GM crops, it’s critical to be familiar with the concept of “substantial equivalence.” 

Substantial equivalence is based on the idea that a GM crop is directly comparable to its non-GM counterpart to ensure that there are no unintended hazards associated with the insertion of the transgene that makes it a GMO. 

In the comparison process, the non-GM counterpart utilized is presumed safe due to its history of successful and safe use as food. 

For a GM crop to be considered safe, any difference in its composition must fall within the normal range of variability for the non-GM counterpart

All of the GM crops on the market have been fully tested for substantial equivalence and all have been graded as equivalent to their non-GM counterparts, and thus, considered safe.

Furthermore, in the countries where GM foods have been approved, no effects on human health in the general population have been shown

Numerous independent science academies and regulatory bodies have reviewed the evidence about risks and have concluded that commercialized GM crops are safe for human consumption and the environment.

Nicolia et al. assembled a list of 1783 scientific papers on GM crop safety and analyzed the distribution and composition of the literature published from 2002 to October 2012. 

In the end, the authors concluded that “the scientific research conducted so far has not detected any significant hazard directly connected with the use of genetically modified crops.”

Benefits of GMOs

As we’ve established, the science on the safety of GMOs is quite robust, but you might be wondering, what is there to gain from GMOs? 

Sure, GMOs might be safe, but the genetic modification technologies currently in use have only been around for a little over two decades. Maybe, it takes longer periods of time for negative consequences to manifest and we’ll learn in a hundred years that there are some risks associated with the consumption of GMOs.

As a man of science, I respectfully disagree with this position. The available evidence stating otherwise is just too strong, but everyone holds the right to be a conspiracy theorist. For those individuals, before you get too comfortable on your side of the fence, let’s talk about the established benefits of GMOs.

Most of the GM crops grown today were developed to prevent crop loss. The most common traits found in GM crops include resistance to insect damage, tolerance to herbicides, and resistance to plant viruses. 

Genetic modification technology has increased crop yields by 21%, reduced pesticide quantity by 37%, and pesticide cost by 39%. This has translated into significant agronomic and economic benefits. As of 2012, the global increase in farm income from GM crops has almost tripled that of the previous ten years to reach $116 billion

It has been reported that 42% of this economic gain is derived from the increased yield associated with lower weed and pest damage as well as superior genetics. The remaining 58% is the result of a decrease in production costs (decreased herbicide and pesticide costs and a reduction in tillage). 

It has been estimated that to attain an equal yield increase to that delivered by GM crops between 1996 and 2012, an additional 303 million acres of conventional crops would be required. Undoubtedly, the conversion of this amount of land to agricultural purposes would have serious ecological and environmental consequences. 

Outside of these benefits, GMOs have had a dramatic and positive influence on human health.

In developing parts of the world, pesticides are applied through human labor using handheld applicators and numerous applications are required throughout the course of the growing season to minimize insect damage. This magnitude of exposure often leads to sickness of the person applying the chemicals.

As a result of GM crops, South African farmers have been able to decrease pesticide applications from 11.2 to 3.8 times per year. Consequently, reported cases of pesticide poisoning have declined from over 50 per year to <10. In India, a reduction of 2.4-9 million cases of pesticide poisoning per year has been reported.

GMOs have also improved the health of many across the globe through increasing the nutrition content of certain foods.

In 2016, the U.N. Food and Agricultural Organization reported that 795 million people in the world were undernourished, 780 million of which were in developing regions. Moreover, close to two billion of the world’s population suffers from an inadequate intake of essential micronutrients.

The accessibility of food crops that are high in nutritional content is granted for those who live in the industrialized world, but this is often not the case for the rural poor who reside in developing countries. For such populations, a diet that is balanced in adequate levels of vitamins and minerals is difficult to achieve.

Most typically, individuals in these areas consume a monotonous diet in which a single crop (usually rice) predominates. As a result of a diet centered around one food, and a lack of access to a variety of fruits and vegetables, close to one-third of childhood deaths under the age of five stem from undernutrition.

A more specific, and all too common affliction, is Vitamin A deficiency. Vitamin A deficiency causes eye damage in three million preschool aged children each year. Of these, half a million become blind and two-thirds will die shortly afterwards.

To combat this issue, genetic modification technology has enabled the creation of golden rice. Named for its golden color due to its high beta-carotene (the precursor molecule for vitamin A biosynthesis) content, golden rice has provided a cheap and effective source of Vitamin A for areas of the world where rice is the main source of nutrition.

Similarly, cassava (a nutritionally deficient staple of a quarter of a billion sub-Saharan Africans) has been generated with high levels of beta-carotene and shown the potential to prevent vitamin A deficiency. 

The expansion of population is one of the major contributors to undernourishment around the world and the growth rate isn’t expected to stop climbing anytime soon. The current population is roughly 7.35 billion. This figure is expected to increase to 8.5 billion in 2030 and 9.7 billion in 2050.

Fortunately, recent developments in agricultural biotechnology can help combat this issue. GMOs provide the ability to both increase crop yields to feed more people and produce nutritionally enhanced foods to address prominent nutrient deficiencies, promoting improvements in global nutritional status.

What’s the difference between organic and grass-fed livestock?

In comparison to conventionally raised animals, both organic and grass-fed livestock typically associated with higher quality meat and dairy products.

A similarity between organic and grass-fed production methods is that both prohibit the use of hormones to promote growth and antibiotics. The living condition standards of the animals also share some commonalities.

To be labeled grass-fed or organic, the living conditions must accommodate the health and natural behaviors of the animal. Shade, sunlight, shelter, space for exercise, fresh air, and clean drinking water must be provided. After these basic necessities, there are some subtle differences in the language used between the American Grassfed Association (AGA) and USDA. 

The AGA states that all ruminants must be provided maximum access to pasture and feeding animals in confinement is prohibited. Furthermore, ruminants may only be removed from pasture during inclement weather or events that may threaten the health, safety, and welfare of the ruminant, or when conditions compromise the ability to graze. For the animals that are removed, they must have access to the outdoors.

Another unique aspect of the AGA standards is the specification that pastures, paddocks, and shelter must be large enough to allow all animals to graze/feed without crowding or competition for food

In comparison, the USDA standards for organic livestock explicitly prohibit continuous total confinement of the livestock. Temporary confinement is allowed under specific circumstances, mostly regarding the health and safety of the animal. 

It also reports that ruminants must have free access to pasture for the entire grazing season. This period is specific to the farm’s geographic climate, but must be at least 120 days. Outside of the grazing season, ruminants must have free access to the outdoors year-round except under specific conditions.

While the living arrangements are bound to vary from operation to operation within the means of the established standards, from the above terminology, it appears (at least to me) that grass-fed animals probably have a bit more freedom and space to maneuver on average.

Moving on to the primary difference between organic and grass-fed products, let’s discuss the feed of the livestock.

The feed of grass-fed animals is pasture based. The diet of the animal is solely from forage appropriate to the species, including grass, forbs (i.e. legumes, brassicas), brose, cereal grain crops harvested in the pre-dough stage, and harvested forages. 

Animals may be provided supplemental feed of hay and silage as necessary and grain products or processed grain products such as barley, corn, oats, rye, wheat, rice, etc. are prohibited.

In comparison, organic livestock are only required to consume at least 30% of their feed from pasture, that is, until the last fifth of their lives (up to 120 days) when this rule no longer applies. The rest of animals’ feed is required to be organic and is typically a blend of grain and corn. 

A final difference is the origin of the animal. The AGA requires that all animals are born and raised on American family farms. 

The Science

With a basic understanding of food marketing terms, we can now examine how differences in production affect nutrition content. 

In summary of a series of recent systematic reviews and meta-analyses of the effects of organic food consumption on human health, it was concluded that there are significant differences in the concentrations of nutritionally relevant compounds between organically and conventionally produced foods. 

Specifically, organic crops have higher antioxidant concentrations (polyphenols in particular), in the range of 18-69%, to be precise. Furthermore, organic meat, milk, and dairy products contain higher amounts of omega-3 fatty acids, and conventional meat contains slightly higher amounts of the saturated fatty acids myristic and palmitic acid.

The reason organic crops typically contain higher antioxidant concentrations stems from the fact that plants secrete polyphenols in response to stress stimuli. Fewer fertilizers are used in organic crop production. This leads to a more stressful environment, and therefore, higher concentrations of these compounds.

Several studies have examined the polyphenol content of organic and conventional fruits and vegetables, including spinach, tomatoes, blueberries, eggplant, and peaches and pears, each demonstrating a higher total of phenolic compounds in the organic version.

Despite this, studies that have investigated the effect of whole diet replacement from conventional to organic foods have generally failed to find between-group differences in antioxidant capacity or nutrient biomarkers. 

On the other hand, these trials do show a dramatic reduction in pesticide excretion through urine, but the benefits of this (if there are any) remain to be determined. Currently, there is insufficient evidence to show translation of this outcome into clinically relevant and meaningful health outcomes.

Overall, there is an absence of long-term, randomized, controlled dietary intervention trials comparing the effects of organic and conventional diets on direct health outcomes. Current trials have utilized short timeframes (typically around 2 weeks) and have only measured surrogate markers of health such as antioxidant levels and pesticide metabolite excretion. 

Observational research tends to report positive associations between organic diet consumption and a range of conditions. Large studies have reported reduced risk of non-Hodgkin lymphoma, as well as obesity and metabolic syndrome. However, these results, like most observational research, should be interpreted with caution. 

It’s clear that consumers of an organic diet tend to be health-conscious, physically active, and in higher brackets of income and education. They also consume a higher ratio of plant to animal foods. For these reasons, positive outcomes are more likely to be a product of the healthy-user effect, rather than the consumption of organic foods, specifically.

Regarding organic meats and dairy products, some readers may already be on the side of organic or grass-fed for reasons related to animal welfare. That being said, the primary determinant behind consumer purchase of organic products tends to be the belief that organic food is healthier or has a superior nutritional profile.

For those who fall into this category, it’s worth taking a look at the hard science to determine the validity of this assumption. 

Beef quality is confounded by multiple factors. This includes the season the beef was finished, muscle type, and slaughter conditions. The breed, sex, age, and diet type of the animal also play a significant role.

On average, organic beef contains a more balanced and favorable lipid profile. Most notably, organic beef has been found to contain an increased content of omega-3 fatty acids.

In one study comparing the nutrition of sirloin steaks, the total omega-3 fatty acid content of organic beef was 31-44% higher than that of non-organic beef. 

In another trial, it was reported that organic beef contained 170% more alpha-linolenic acid (an omega-3 fatty acid, though, an arguably less important one) than conventional beef. 

Also, it was found that organic beef contained slightly less cholesterol and palmitic acid (17%), and greater concentrations of the bioactive compounds taurine and Coenzyme Q10, which may be beneficial.

While the absolute content of omega-3 fatty acids in beef and other red meat is trivial compared to oily fish (0.29-0.52 mg vs 19.9 mg/g), it is considered to be an important source of omega-3 fatty acids in Western countries, since the frequency and quantity of beef consumption tends to significantly exceed that of oily fish. 

The research behind organic dairy products is quite similar to beef.  A systematic review on the topic found that organic milk contains significantly higher concentrations of omega-3 fatty acids than conventional milk. 

Mean percentage difference was 56% for total omega-3 fatty acids, 68% for ALA, 67% for EPA, 45% for DPA, and 21% for DHA.  

By contrast, the two products appear to contain similar concentrations of total saturated and monounsaturated fatty acids. Another interesting difference is that organic milk contains lower concentrations of iodine and selenium.  

Conclusion

The current data on organic foods shows potentially beneficial differences in nutrient content, but this doesn’t seem to be significant enough to have a meaningful effect on health. Also, there is evidence that organic foods contain lower levels of detectable pesticide residue and the toxic metal cadmium

In reference to the latter, regulatory agencies ensure that all foods contain levels within limits considered not to pose a risk to consumers. There is also an absence of evidence demonstrating health benefits from further minimizing exposure. Nonetheless, this may be relevant information to those who would like to take a precautionary approach.

At the end of the day, when it comes to the nutritional content of food and its subsequent effects on health, it makes little difference if the food is produced by organic or conventional methods.

“Organic” is not synonymous with “healthy” and “genetically modified” does not insinuate that a food is unhealthy.

When it comes to the foods you select to consume, the focus should be on the food itself, not the terms featured on the label. The emphasis should always be on minimally processed, whole foods. It doesn’t matter if a piece of candy is labeled organic, a hefty serving will contribute to fat gain all the same.

A diet that is rich in fruits and vegetables, and contains moderate amounts of dairy products and lean meat is a fantastic choice for promoting health and managing long-term disease risk, regardless of whether or not the foods are stamped with  “organic,” “non-GMO,” or “grass-fed.”

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