If you’ve ever visited a grocery store (or watched an episode of Portlandia), you’ve definitely heard the word “organic.”
But if you’ve never taken the time to do some deep googling (we get it — Wikipedia is vast), you might not know exactly what that word means, if organic products are inherently better than those that aren’t, and why you should even care. Don’t worry; we’ve got you. Over the course of our extensive product research sessions at BuzzFeed Reviews, we’ve come across approximately a zillion types of products that are labeled as organic, in so many different contexts (sheets! lipstick! beef jerky!) — so we decided to get to the bottom of what, exactly, it means. Here’s what we found out.
First things first: What does “organic” actually mean?
The million-dollar question. “Organic” is a broad term that refers to agricultural products grown without synthetic chemicals (like pesticides and antibiotics) or genetically modified* seeds. The good news is that in the US, farmers can’t play fast and loose with the word. So if a product is labeled organic, that means that the USDA has signed off. Products that are labeled organic can either be certified organic or 100% organic…but we’ll get to those distinctions later.
(*A quick note about genetically modified organisms, or GMOs: The term refers to any living being that has had its genetic code altered, often to achieve a more “desirable” effect — like when you see a really huge strawberry. A lot of people have strong feelings about GMOs, though there doesn’t seem to be conclusive scientific evidence that they’re harmful. Bottom line: Eat what makes you feel comfortable, and if the idea of a genetically modified strawberry weirds you out, then organic food is the way to go.)
What products are even eligible for organic certification?
The short answer is anything made from plants or animals (including animal products like eggs, dairy, and wool). This includes all food and beverages (including pet food) as well as flowers and seeds, tobacco, textiles, and other fibers (including cotton fabric and wool), soft toys (if they’re made with the aforementioned textiles), cleaning supplies, skincare products, and makeup. Also, the USDA doesn’t recognize cannabis (including marijuana as well as cannabis-based products like CBD) as a “legitimate agricultural product,” but individual states where marijuana is legal have begun to certify organic cannabis.
So what does it take for a product to get USDA certification?
Brief history aside (just imagine a zippy Schoolhouse Rock tune here): The Organic Foods Production Act of 1990 established the National Organic Program, which oversees alllll the regulations we’re going to summarize below.
And it turns out the regulations are pretty rigorous, and they begin at the very beginning of a product’s life. For plant-based products, it starts with the land. A farm isn’t eligible for organic certification unless it has been farmed without any of the prohibited chemicals (more on those below) for three years, to ensure that no residual chemicals remain in the soil, or find their way into your certified organic carrots. Now, for the crops themselves: They can’t be genetically engineered. While many foods advertise their non-GMO status, all certified organic foods are non-GMO (i.e., something that’s non-GMO isn’t always organic, but something that’s organic is always non-GMO). There are also restrictions on what kinds of chemicals can be used in organic farming. Organic farms do still use pesticides, but for the most part the approved pesticides are natural rather than synthetic.
For animal products to earn the certification, the animals from which the products are sourced need to be fed an all-organic diet as well as have access to outdoor space year-round, and must be raised without antibiotics — which is good news, since the overuse of antibiotics in farm animals could be helping to create drug-resistant bacteria (yikes).
For products that are made with multiple different potentially organic ingredients, there are different kinds of official certifications.
Let’s start with the gold standard: 100% organic. This means all the ingredients in the product are organic.
Next, organic. For a product to be considered organic, it has to contain 95% organic ingredients, and its non-organic ingredients can’t be on the National List of Prohibited Substances.
These are the only two designations that earn a product the USDA certification. BUT! There are two other designations eagle-eyed label readers might spot: “made with organic,” which means that at least 70% of ingredients are organic, and “organic ingredients,” which means that at least one ingredient is organic.
So: Should you buy organic?
Buying organic can definitely cut down on the number of antibiotics and chemicals you ingest (though you could still be ingesting pesticides, so buying organic isn’t necessarily your get-out-of-washing-fruits-and-veggies-free card). And while organic certification isn’t always synonymous with ensuring that livestock are raised humanely, more oversight is certainly better when it comes to animal welfare. That said, claims that organic food is actually healthier haven’t been substantiated.
As to the question of whether organic farming is better for the environment, wellllllll…it’s complicated. The ban on synthetic chemicals is better for local wildlife, and organic methods promote biodiversity and can help prevent soil erosion. Organic farms are also better for farmworkers, because they expose them to less chemicals, and the farms are smaller, which often means better working conditions. That said, organic farming is not a silver bullet for the environment (sorry about that).
In conclusion, there are few downsides to buying organic, if your budget allows. Particularly for the kind of products you eat and use on your skin every day (or, in the case of baby toys, that your kid basically stores in their mouth), it makes sense to consider paying a bit of a premium for organic goods.