Question: I’m a restaurant owner interested in adopting a more sustainable and energy-efficient approach to service. I’d like to start sourcing locally and am interested in exploring organic ingredients for some of my recipes. Not to ask the obvious question, but what is the difference between organic and non-organic food?

Answer: We love that you asked that! There is so much to know about organic and non-organic food that we’re going to turn you over to one of the experts, our partners over at LEAF! They recently published a great article outlining some of the biggest differences between organic and non-organic food – take a look!

A few years ago, organic foods were hard to find in most grocery stores, restaurants and through food distributors.  Believing these foods taste better and are more nutritious than conventionally grown produce, many people have transitioned to buying organic foods.  A 2008 AC Nielsen study commissioned by Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada revealed total annual retail sales of certified organic products in Canada are approximately $2 billion, with about 45% moving through mainstream supermarkets.

To meet the growing demand, most food supply channels now offer a variety of organic products and many organic food products are featured in natural food stores and farmers’ markets. With all the labels, it is easy for consumers to become confused over what the term organic really means. To add to the controversy, a recent study by Stanford University researchers found that organic foods were not nutritionally superior to non-organic foods. The study reviewed decades of research which compared nutrient and contaminant levels (bacterial, fungal and pesticide) in foods grown organically and conventionally. The findings revealed that organic produce and meat typically isn’t any better than conventional varieties when it comes to vitamin and nutrient content. The researchers found that eating organic fruits and vegetables however could lower exposure to pesticides and antibiotic-resistant bacteria.

The inherent problems with the Stanford study are pointed out in a recent New York Times article by journalist and good food advocate Mark Bittman. The study adopts a narrow definition of “nutritious” as simply containing more vitamins and overlooks key factors people opt for organic foods such as lack of pesticides and bacteria. This allows the research to present evidence that if the decision between choosing organic over traditional foods were based only on nutrients, there is no reason to choose one over the other. Based on the study’s narrow criteria for nutrition, “Frosted Flakes are a better choice than an apple” concludes Bittman.

What is organic food?

Organic basically means that foods are grown or processed without the use of synthetic fertilizers or pesticides, pesticides, genetic engineering, use of irradiation to preserve food antibiotics, growth regulators or dyes and preservatives. Almost any food, including meat, can be produced organically. To be certified organic, the livestock must only consume organic feed and they must not be given growth hormones or antibiotics.

An organic product is an agricultural product that has been certified as organic using the methods outlined by the Canadian Organic Standards. After a food has been certified, it will carry the certified organic label.  Organic farms undergo yearly inspections by independent surveyors to make sure that farmers are adhering to the standards.  The Canadian national standards regulate which substances can be used, soil management, cleaning of processing facilities and how organic products are separated from non-organic ones during sale and transportation.

Canadian law requires all organic foods that cross interprovincial or international borders to be regulated under both the Food and Drug Regulations and Organic Product Regulations. These are subject to enforcement by the Canadian Food Inspection Agency. Organic foods that are made and sold only within their province of origin fall under federal truthful labeling laws and may be subject to provincial organic regulations.

Why does organic food cost more than regular products?

Consumers discover that organic foods tend to cost more than non-organic products at the checkout counter. Organic farming methods usually involve more labour as there are no drugs, pesticides or chemical fertilizers used.  As only organic feed must be used, it costs organic cattle ranchers much more to feed their animals. Non-organic farmers or ranchers often receive government subsidies so they are able to sell their food for lower prices. Many organic farms are too small to receive these subsidies. However, if organic produce is grown locally, it may be less expensive than the same fruit or vegetables farmed conventionally.

What are the benefits of buying organic foods?

There are advantages to buying organic products besides health benefits. Besides supporting a healthy environment and humane treatment of animals, other benefits include:

  • Organic products have been grown and processed according to strict regulations and without chemicals
  • Organic foods are made without the use of genetically modified organisms such as yeast or bacteria
  • Organic farming supports clean supply of water and healthy soil
  • Organic farming uses less energy overall, so going organic will help fight climate change

What to look for?

When shopping for organic foods at the supermarket, farmers markets, or through your food distributor, check for the organic logos and names of certifying bodies to assure that a product has been grown and processed according to internationally recognized organic standards.  At present, there are more than 40 certifying bodies in Canada. The Canada Organic Logo is a quick way to identify products grown and processed according to Canada’s national organic standards. The use of the official Canada Organic Logo is voluntary, so it will not appear on all certified organic products.  If you have doubts about an organic claim, you can file a complaint with the Canadian Food Inspection Agency.

Since June 30, 2009, any product claiming to be organic must meet the terms of the Organic Products Regulations. Only those products with 95% or greater organic content may be labeled as “organic” or use the organic logo.
(Canadian Organic Growers. Retrieved from   standards)

For further information: Canadian Food Inspection Agency –

image credit: and EJP Photo