“Organic” is quite possibly the biggest buzzword of the past decade. I’m asked about organics more than any other food topic. With so much media attention on GMO, rBGH and chemical treatments to the food we eat, the organic movement has been gaining traction, and is one many Americans agree with whole-heartedly. But when I quiz my clients on the merits of organic, or even what it means to be organic, they are, for the most part, under-informed. As a personal chef, one who caters completely to my clients’ wishes, I believe in the concept of choice and encourage informed decisions about the options on the market.Therefore, this article aims to inform, not influence, decisions.
What Is Organic?
To be “organic” simply means to be natural, or derived in some way from living matter. Humans are organic beings, formed of carbon, nitrogen, calcium, etc. The things we see around us in nature, whether man-made or nature-made, are also organic by definition. We are composed of ingredients of the world around us, and when we construct anything, we use what we find around us to form other organic items.
But, in terms of food, organic means something wholly different. Organic produce is especially trendy, as is organic (or naturally-raised) protein sources and grains. Pesticides, herbicides and additives are common in most all food types whether the label claims so or not, and there are reasons companies integrate this technology into their process. For now, let’s consider what being organic means to the USDA.
The USDA, or the United States Department of Agriculture, has a program called the National Organic Program (NOP), which formed under the Organic Foods Protection Act (OFPA) of 1990. In order to comply with this legislation, foods to be designated “organic” must be produced by farmers that do not use many of the conventional synthetic pesticides available, but rather, use specific pesticides designated by the USDA. In addition to regulating the pesticides and other chemicals that can be used in organic production, the NOP also mandates harvest, and handling, and labeling requirements for these products.
How Is Food Certified as Organic?
Wait, there are pesticides and chemicals in organic foods? Absolutely, they’re just the ones the USDA designates. One other surprise is that the “organic” label is a certification purchased through the USDA, like a bar would purchase a liquor license. An initial inspection is conducted to ensure the farm meets the current requirements, the farm pays the fee and the certification is issued.
Consider this from the USDA website: “Overall, USDA oversees organic farmers and businesses to make sure that organic food is produced with organic methods. Each year, organic farmers update a farm plan and complete an inspection to confirm that their practices match their records. The farmer must correct any issues to continue certification. Organic food processors meet similar requirements.” This means that the farms themselves are responsible for ensuring that they’re meeting the requirements, and the USDA allows the farms to complete their own inspections. The consumer is welcome to submit complaints or concerns to the USDA if they feel the product isn’t meeting the organic requirements, but this assumes that the normal consumer would realize a difference and make the call. You’re likely never to meet this farm owner in person or pay a visit to their farm, so the USDA’s assumption that you’ll notice unprofessional food handling is a shortfall in this system of certification.
There are also problems with some types of farms in maintaining organic qualifications. For example, many dairies pool their milk and it is homogenized and pasteurized at a facility after that pooling takes place. Pooling was initiated in order to maintain the amount of milk available in the market, because one farm may produce more than others. It also began as a way to make milk texture and taste consistent day to day. If one farm is organic but the others aren’t, it creates a problem with pooling. This is why, in many cases, organic dairy farms don’t pool their products with other farms and why, in turn, there is less available on the market and higher prices are charged for it.
Any product labeled organic must be at least 95% organic, also, but that other 5% doesn’t have to be. This changed recently, as it used to be about half that percentage. (How 95% of a carrot can be organic but 5% isn’t doesn’t make much sense to me, but that’s the responsibility of the farmer to ensure.)
Should I Eat Organic? How?
If you’ve ever purchased produce or goods from a local farm, with dirt and stems still attached, you know the merit of eating close to the dirt. For those who live a little farther from the farm, being able to depend on the organic certification is important. I will always advocate getting to know your farmer whenever possible, and buying your goods from someone you trust, even if it’s a grocer. I’m fortunate to know my farmers, who include family members, so I can peruse their chemical stashes, ask questions and see the growth as it progresses.
Some claim that organic products taste better. I’ve used both non-organic and organic products, per client request, and found no difference in cooking or baking properties. Taste is in the eye, err…tongue, of the beholder. Grab a dozen organic eggs or some organic rice and try for yourself. For those who are acclimated to certain brands of drink, dry goods or produce, a new brand will certainly taste different. Other factors, such as soil condition, preservation methods and shelf life can also affect an item’s flavor post-growth. Wax is added to many fruits and vegetables, buffed in to make produce like bananas and apples nice and shiny to the consumer’s eye. If you’ve ever been to a farm market and seen drab, matte apples, now you know why. It’s not that they’re less ripe or flavorful; they’re just not treated post-harvest. And that wax certainly adds a flavor and texture to the skin.
Going forward, check into government websites, farm reports and agriculture digests to stay informed. I’ve placed links below. Due to crop rotation or cost, some farms are organic one year and not the next. Due to anticipated yield or certification requirements, some farms grow one organic product but the rest of the crops are not. It’s the job of the consumer to decide where to place faith and where to spend their income. As always, if you have questions, please reach out!
Jill Marie is a classically-trained French chef, certified by Le Cordon Bleu and possessing both a Grand Diplôme in culinary arts and Pastry Certification. She’s been cooking professionally in hotel,restaurant and catering kitchens for fifteen years, and specializes in comfortable, everyday food. She also earned a Master’s degree in Human Resources and a Bachelor’s degree in Finance. In addition to running Delivery Dinners of Delaware, she works full-time in Human Resources. Jill is also a published author of women’s fiction/romance, and her current series, Second Saga, is in print. Visit her site jillmariedenton.com for book info and writing samples.