Organic vs. Non-Organic | Does it really matter?

We’ve all been faced with the green organic label at the grocery store – but is it really worth the extra money? Katie Van Buren, MS, RD, a registered dietitian at ProMedica Charles and Virginia Hickman Hospital, discusses what “organic” really means and if you should be concerned about buying it.

Understanding Organic Foods

What does it mean when food is organic?

Organic food is produced following rules and regulations set by the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) National Organic Program. According to the USDA, “USDA certified organic foods are grown and processed according to federal guidelines addressing, 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 to the fullest extent possible.”

Organic produce is produced without the use of synthetic fertilizers and pesticides. Organic meat is produced without antibiotics and hormones, and animals are fed organic feed and are raised in living conditions that accommodate their natural behaviors.

Are organic foods safer or healthier than non-organic foods?

There is no robust evidence to support the idea that organically produced foods are more nutritious than conventional (non-organic) alternatives. However, there are several things to consider when deciding between organic or conventional food:

  • Environmental impact: Organic farming is considered far more sustainable than conventional farming due to the exclusion of synthetic fertilizers, pesticides, antibiotics and hormones.
  • Impact on agricultural communities: Growing organic has a positive impact on farming communities through improved soil, water and air quality, increased biodiversity and improved wildlife habitat.
  • Environmental exposure: Links to increased cases of ADHD and Alzheimer’s disease, lower IQ and impaired fetal growth have been found in individuals who live in agricultural communities with a high concentration of conventional farming. This data has been collected in multiple studies including the largest longitudinal study into health impacts of pesticides and environmental exposure, The Center for the Health Assessment of Mothers and Children of Salinas Study (CHAMACOS).
  • Occupational exposure: The United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) recognizes links between conventional agriculture workers and respiratory conditions, various cancers and Parkinson’s disease.
  • Cost: Organically produced foods are more costly than conventionally produced foods.
  • Access: Access to organic foods may be more limited than access to conventional foods.

Increasing Access to Fresh Produce

ProMedica Farms, located on the campus of ProMedica Charles and Virginia Hickman Hospital, is working to increase access to fresh produce in Lenawee County, Michigan. The three-acre farm was created to support ProMedica’s focus on addressing the social determinants of health (SDOH), or the aspects of health that take place outside the doctor’s office. With the help of local farmers and a slew of volunteers, ProMedica Farms is able to provide fresh, low-cost produce to the Lenawee community.

“In the most recent growing season, we grew heaps of vegetables including beets, celery, green onion, potatoes, tomatoes, green and red bell peppers, watermelon, zucchini and butternut squash,” shares Amy Gilhouse, manager of ProMedica Farms. “All of these were grown organically without the use of chemicals. We rely on cultivating healthy soil, scouting for insects to maintain the health of plants and getting creative to deter insects with non-chemical means.”

Every week, community members are able to purchase the produce from ProMedica’s Veggie Mobile at one of its 17 stops throughout the community. ProMedica Farms also provides education for patients and community members about how to eat healthier and take advantage of seasonal produce grown in Michigan.

“The response to food insecurity is often to provide shelf-stable products,” shares Frank Nagle, director of Community Impact for ProMedica in Michigan. “We are grateful for the opportunity to provide fresh, locally grown produce to the people of Lenawee county.”

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) only one in 10 Americans eat enough fruits and vegetables every day. “Don’t let the inability to purchase organic food stop you from eating conventional produce or meats,” Katie shares. “Instead, focus on consuming a variety of fruits and vegetables, thoroughly washing them before consuming – even if they are organic – and purchasing local when you’re able.”

Learn more about ProMedica’s SDOH efforts in Lenawee County and beyond.