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The Difference Between Local and Organic Food

Should I buy local? Should I buy organic? What’s the difference between the two? Ever since 2010 when the National Restaurant Association listed local and organic on their “What’s Hot” food trends, it seems like these are questions a lot of restaurateurs have been asking. Just like any other green buzzwords, people often lump these terms together and mix up their meanings. We're here to clear things up and finally explain the difference between local and organic food.

What is Organic Food?

what is the difference between local and organic food?

Any food that has a USDA organic label, whether it’s produce, dairy, or meat, must be grown and processed according to federal guidelines. While there are many factors that the USDA considers, the most important are soil quality, animal raising practices, pest and weed control, and the use of additives.

Fruits and vegetables can be classified as organic if they’re grown in soil that hasn’t had “applied substances,” like synthetic fertilizers and pesticides, for three years prior to harvest. But when it comes to meat and dairy products, the animals must be raised in “living conditions accommodating their natural behaviors”. This means that the animals weren’t confined to small areas and were able to freely move about. These animals also can’t be injected with antibiotics or hormones and can’t ingest food that isn’t 100% organic feed and forage. Use of genetically modified organisms (GMOs) while organic food is being grown or handled is also prohibited.

Is Organic Food More Nutritious?

As of 2012 the accepted belief was that organic foods didn't offer any more nutrients than their non-organic counterparts. Recently, researchers have found that while organic foods do offer similar levels of nutrients, like vitamins C and E, they also contain more antioxidants than conventionally grown foods. Antioxidants offer many benefits, the most important is that they slow down and sometimes prevent the oxidation of molecules, which can cause damage to our cellular structure. This research also found that non-organic food often contained more pesticides and cadmium, an element that can cause negative health effects after long-term exposure.

The Difference Between Organic and Non-GMO Foods

difference between local and organic food

Non-GMO foods are items that haven’t been altered using genetic modifications or engineering techniques. The GMO process, often referred to as genetic engineering (GE), works by removing the genes from the DNA of an organism, like an animal, plant, or bacterium, and adding it to another food's DNA in order to alter it. Since there isn't a physical difference between GMO and non-GMO foods, the latter is often marked with a "Non-GMO" or "GMO Free" sticker.

Despite often sharing the same label, there are differences between non-GMO and organic items. Non-GMO foods can still feature artificial flavors, colors, and preservatives, as well as synthetic fertilizers and hormones, while organic cannot. In other words, food that is non-GMO isn't necessarily organic, but all organic foods are non-GMO.

The Difference Between Organic and Natural Foods

As discussed above, organic foods are grown or raised without the use of synthetic chemicals and artificial growth hormones. Natural foods are loosely defined as foods that aren’t altered chemically and don’t contain any hormones, antibiotics, or artificial flavors. However, the FDA states that it has not developed a definition for the use of the term.

Because of this, the term "natural" can be added to just about any food, whether it’s organic or non-organic. This means that something that is labeled “natural” isn’t always going to be free from additives or organic, unless specifically stated on the label.

What is Local Food?

local vs organic

Food labeled as being "locally grown" is a bit harder to trust since there is no governing body that keeps track of where these foods come from. The 2008 Farm Act states that in order for food to be labeled as “local” it must be transported less than 400 miles from its origin. But, a 2010 study done by the U.S. Department of Agriculture found that “there is no consensus on a definition in terms of the distance between production and consumption.”

However, many restaurateurs have agreed that local is anything that is grown within a 150-mile radius. This means that the produce and meat you’re buying that’s labeled “local” could have actually been grown a few states away or even produced on a factory farm.

If you find out that your produce labeled "local" is actually from a few states away, then it most likely contains chemicals that prolong the lifespan of the product. While the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) does permit a certain level of pesticide to remain on produce once it reaches your distributor, it’s still important that you properly clean your fruits and veggies in order to remove any harmful chemicals.

Can Local Food Be Organic?

In a study conducted in 2014, researchers found that 25% of American consumers believed that organic was a characteristic of local food. This is not necessarily true. In order for local food to be classified as organic, the farmer would need to follow the organic farming guidelines set forth by the USDA. If you're curious if your local produce is organic, you should look for the "Certified Organic" label or ask your supplier.


Today more than ever before, consumers are moving their focus towards a more sustainable environment. Because of this, people are willing to pay a little bit extra for food that has a local, organic, or non-GMO label. By adding ingredients like this to your menu, you're sure to attract new guest to your restaurant, cafe, or diner. For more information on sustainable efforts your business can make, check out our posts on Hyper-Local Restaurants, Ways Your Restaurant Can Go Green, and Green Catering Tips.

Posted in: Eco-Friendly Tips | By Emily Hepner
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