Is Organic Food Healthier Than Non-Organic?
The truth about that up-priced produce.
Many folks automatically assume that organic equals healthier. But have you ever wondered if the product you're most likely paying more for is actually nutritionally superior? We decided to get to the bottom of it and figure out if which groceries you should be buying.
What Qualifies Food as Organic?
According to the USDA, there are some guideliines that all organic foods must follow. Foods that are certified organic need to have been grown and processed according to federal guidelines, which address factors including soil quality, how animals are raised, pest and weed control and use of additives. And no organic food is allowed to be grown or handled using genetically modified organisms, also known as GMOs.
But it's important to remember that some certified organic label requirements are different depending on the type of food being produced. For example, according to the USDA, produce can be labeled organic if grown in soil free of prohibited substances including most synthetic pesticides and fertilizers for three years before it was harvested. Organic meat requirements include that animals are raised in living conditions that accommodate their natural behavior (think cows grazing on pasture), fed 100% organic feed and forage, and are not administered antibiotics or hormones.
When it comes to packaged foods, it's not always so clear. The label might say, “made with organic,” but that only requires the food to contain at least 70 percent organically produced ingredients.
Is Organic Healthier?
Again, it depends on what you're eating. Whether a cookie is organic or conventional, it's still an empty-calorie food that shouldn’t be a regular part of any healthy eating plan.
But if you're looking at organic verses conventional fruits and vegetables, it can be a little harder to determine. The Evironmental Working Group, a consumer advocacy group, who does their own testing for pesticide residue, dubbed the produce with the highest amount of pesticide residue the “dirty dozen” and those with the least the “clean 15.” However, not all experts agree that consumers should be adhering to these lists.
According to the 2015-2020 dietary guidelines for Americans, 90-percent of the population doesn’t eat the recommended amount of vegetables while approximately 85 percent of the population doesn’t eat the recommended amount of fruit. A 2016 study conducted by researchers for Illinois Tech Center for Nutrition Research found that that the cost of organic fruits and vegetables is too high for low-income individuals, so they don’t buy them. Even worse, the study participants reported that messaging from EWG created fear around purchasing conventional produce. Sadly, the study found that these individuals skipped buying any produce at all. Study after study shows that eating fruits and vegetables has a plethora of health benefits — and it doesn’t matter whether it’s organic or conventional. In addition, research shows that there are no nutritional differences between organic and conventional foods. The nutrients found in fresh produce are based on numerous factors including weather conditions and state of ripeness and not whether organic or conventional practices are being used.
So What About That “Dirty Dozen” List?
Besides having a negative impact on consumers, the shoppers’ guides provided by the EWG is not based upon sound science. One study published in the Journal of Toxicology found that substituting organic forms of fruits and vegetables for conventional forms, as advised by the EWG, didn’t result in any decrease in risk for consumers because pesticide residue on conventional produce is just so low, if present at all.
In addition, the USDA and FDA conducted a sampling program where they tested the residue of foods. The results showed that 99.5 percent of the samples tested had pesticide residue below the standards set forth by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), and 22 percent had no detectible amount of pesticide residue at all.
If you want to see how much pesticide residue the food you’re choosing to eat has, you can try this pesticide residue calculator from the Alliance for Food and Farming. For example, if you select spinach, you’ll find that you need to eat 773 servings in one day without any effect — even if the spinach has the highest pesticide residue recorded for spinach by the USDA. For strawberries, it’s 453 servings in one day. Given that most Americans don’t even meet their daily recommended amounts of fruits and vegetables, it’s highly unlikely that you’ll even come close to consuming this amount!
Both conventional and organic foods have similar nutrient profiles, and choosing one over the other is a personal choice. Most Americans do not consume a diet balanced with fruits, vegetables, whole grains, lean protein, low and nonfat dairy and healthy fats. If you include these wholesome foods in your well-balanced diet, whether conventional or organic, your diet is heading in the right direction!
Toby Amidor, MS, RD, CDN, is a registered dietitian and consultant who specializes in food safety and culinary nutrition. She is the author of The Greek Yogurt Kitchen: More Than 130 Delicious, Healthy Recipes for Every Meal of the Day.
*This article was written and/or reviewed by an independent registered dietitian nutritionist.