Featured Image for Organic Foods - Part 2: Meat Me in the Produce Aisle

With the basics of what constitutes an organic product under the National Organic Program (NOP) behind us, we can move forward to comparing organic products with non-organic.  What are the differences between the two, if any?  Let’s explore. (For the first article in this series, see “Organic Foods – Part 1: The Lowdown”.)

Size and shape

When purchasing organic produce, the physical differences between organic and non-organic versions are almost instantaneously noticeable.  Organic produce frequently comes in variable sizes and shapes that often look physically “imperfect,” whereas non-organic produce all seems to look relatively the same (within type, of course) – but why?  The short version is that much non-organic, unprocessed or minimally processed produce is treated with a variety of growth-enhancing substances and is also commonly subjected to U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) grading and quality standards (voluntarily), while organic produce is not.  This may be changing, however, as the USDA is currently working to implement similar types of physical standards under the NOP in the near future.

Similar to produce, organic meats (beef, pork, poultry, etc.), specifically cuts of meat, are often physically different from their non-organic counterparts.  While cuts of organic meat have similar coloration to non-organic cuts, organic cuts are usually a bit smaller.  The main reasoning for this size difference is simple: animals used for the production of organic meat products are not treated with any growth-enhancing substances commonly used in non-organic meat production, often resulting in smaller cuts.

Quality

Defining the “quality” differences between organic and non-organic produce and meats is difficult because of the differing values people assign to quality when it comes to food.  In a nutshell, organic food products must meet the same standards that apply to non-organic foods, but the organic food products must meet an additional set of standards that do not apply to non-organic products (the National Organic Program or NOP).  Additionally, organic products are required to be certified as meeting these extra standards, while participation by non-organic product producers in many of the basic USDA-established standards and certifications is not required (though many do participate).

So, back to our original question: is there a quality difference between organic and non-organic products?  Well, if you as an individual attribute low environmental impact, minimal additive and synthetic-substance use, as well as stricter regulation of farming practices with greater “quality” in the food you eat, then organic products would probably register as such, generally.  On the other hand, if you as an individual associate attributes such as higher product consistency, greater size, and more “perfect” physical characteristics with greater “quality” in the food you eat, then organic products probably would not represent a higher quality product to you.

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Also, although a lot of people believe that organic products are nutritionally superior to non-organic products, some very recent studies have shown that the nutritional differences between organic products and non-organic products are generally minuscule, though research on the topic is ongoing.

Food additives, pesticides, and other substances

Perhaps the most substantial and tangible differences between organic products and non-organic products lie in the various substances used in non-organic food production that are not in organics.  Under the NOP, the use of certain modification methods, pesticides, and other synthetic substances on food plants, as well as the use of food additives, fortifiers, and substances that may be used as processing aids in organic products, are strictly limited to legislation-identified methods, substances, and uses (see exceptions here: Substances and methods list).  Additionally, animals used to produce organic products such as eggs, cheeses, meats, etc., are raised on organic feeds without the use of antibiotics (except in certain, atypical circumstances), growth-enhancing substances, and other various artificial substances and modification methods.  In the end, all of these things mean that, in theory, organic products contain far fewer artificial ingredients (e.g., preservatives, and pesticide and/or antibiotic residues, etc.), if any, than their non-organic counterparts.

A market divided

At this point you’re armed with most of the information necessary to better judge and understand the organic food market. However, knowing about the numerous physical, visual, qualitative and compositional differences between organic and non-organic products is only the second part of the organics puzzle.

The last piece of this puzzle will come in Part 3 of this series, The Safety Question, in which we will discuss and compare the various risks associated with eating organic versus non-organic foods.