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What is the difference between organic and non-organic things? 

Asked by: Lorenzo Lockwood
School: East Middle School, Binghamton City School Distric
Grade: 7
Teacher: Jill Browne
Hobbies/Interests: Basketball, football
Career Interest: NBA basketball player, owner of a restaurant, owner of a gaming company

 

Answer from Douglas W. Green, EdD

Adjunct Lecturer, Binghamton University

Research area: Leadership, learning theory and social media Interests/hobbies: Playing banjo, biking, golf and reading

These days the word organic shows up a lot, especially when it comes to food. Ironically, all food is mostly organic as far as chemists are concerned. The field of organic chemistry studies the chemistry of carbon compounds. What makes the carbon atom so special is its relatively small size and its ability to form chemical bonds with up to four other atoms.

The smallest organic molecule is methane, which is composed of one carbon atom bonded to four hydrogen atoms. A chemical bond is formed when neighboring atoms share a pair of electrons. Carbon can also form double and triple bonds by sharing two or three pairs of electrons with other atoms. Methane is colorless and odorless, and it is the main component of natural gas that many people use to heat their homes. 

When it comes to food, organic molecules also usually contain oxygen and perhaps nitrogen atoms. Carbohydrates contain carbon, hydrogen and oxygen atoms in a 1:2:1 ratio. Starches and sugars are examples. Fat molecules contain the same atoms with more hydrogen. This results in fats having twice as many calories per gram than carbohydrates. Proteins that we get from things like animal muscles and vegetables like beans contain nitrogen atoms as well. The main non-organic components found in food in small amounts are things like salt, which is made of sodium and chlorine atoms.

So how is it that only some food is advertised as organic? When it comes to food production, the term organic has a very different meaning, and each government has its own rules if you want to advertise that your food product was organically produced. Generally, synthetic pesticides and chemical fertilizers are not allowed. They are also not likely to be exposed to radiation or industrial solvents, and they lack chemical food additives and dyes.

Food grown organically is likely to cost more, so the big questions are whether it is better for you and does it taste better? We don't know if it is better for you due to the difficulty of designing effective experiments. As for taste, you can use your own taste buds to decide. Purchase some organic and non-organic food items, and do some taste tests. Organically grown food should be better for the environment as they eliminate the chance for artificial fertilizers and pesticides to find their way to our water supply.

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Last Updated: 9/25/14