Organic vs. Non-Organic: Does It Make a Difference?

We investigate if buying organic foods really makes a difference for your health.

Young woman carries a shopping basket filled with fresh produce. She is shopping for fresh fruit and vegetables in a grocery store.


Young woman carries a shopping basket filled with fresh produce. She is shopping for fresh fruit and vegetables in a grocery store.

Photo by: Steve Debenport

Steve Debenport

Are you breaking the bank on organic produce and other organic foods? The word “organic” has become synonymous with all kinds of nutrition superlatives, but healthy is not a mandatory part of the definition. We are setting the record straight and giving you the facts so you can make the most of your next shopping trip.

What Are Organic Foods?

The USDA defines organic foods as those items grown and produced without the use of chemical pesticides, herbicides and other prohibited substances. This process is strictly policed by the USDA in efforts to protect the foodstuffs and the land it’s grown on. Their website reads:

“Produce can be called organic if it’s certified to have grown on soil that had no prohibited substances applied for three years prior to harvest.”

All the government oversight, certification expenses and other financial issues associated with growing organic produce (such as lower yields and alternative pest control practices) means organic foods come at a higher price point. Despite these remarkable differences, there is not much solid science to support that organic produce is any more nutritious than conventionally grown items – an organic apple has the same nutrients as a non-organic one. Confused yet? Understandable. Food labeling can also get tricky. Only foods that contain nothing but organic ingredients can be labeled “100% organic,” while foods deemed “organic” only need to be 95 to 99 percent organic. And yes, there’s more: Foods made with 70 to 94 percent organic ingredients can flash the title “made with organic ingredients."

What About Dirty and Clean Food?

Some folks may look to other organizations for guidance to help make sense of organic dos and don’ts. The Environmental Working Group’s Shopper’s Guide to Pesticides in Produce sets out to rank traces of non organic residues found on regularly consumed produce items. They review available data each year to create the trendy “Dirty Dozen” and “Clean Fifteen” lists indicating which 12 produce items carry the highest amount of pesticide residues and which 15 carry the lowest. According to the EWG: “People can lower their pesticide exposure by almost 80 percent by avoiding the top 12 most contaminated fruits and vegetables and eating the least contaminated instead.” But these “dirty" and "clean” labels should not deter you from eating fresh fruits and vegetables whether they are grown organic or conventionally. When you take a closer look at the research even the highest loads of deductible pesticides found in the dirty dozen do not appear to pose imminent harm to those that eat them. For example, kale ranked high on the pesticide residue list this year, but the amount it contains is still pretty negligible – meaning it would be impossible to eat enough of the leafy green for it to be harmful.

What About Packaged Organic Foods?

Organic foods come in all shapes and sizes and you can easily find organically-produced junk food. Organic cookies, fried snack foods and other less-than-healthy foods are little or no better for you than their conventionally grown counterparts. Treat these highly processed foods with the same caution and moderation you would any other highly processed junk food.

How About Local Organic Food?

Locally grown produce often comes from smaller farms that don’t have to use the same types or amounts pesticides as large farms that service grocery stores. Talk to your local farmer about their use of pesticides and decide if going local seems like a better fit than organic for your home.

Bottom Line: Organic isn’t as black and white as it seems. Eating plentiful amounts of fruits and veggies will benefit you no matter how they are grown and organic junk food is still junk!

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How to Shop for Organic Produce

With such a wide variety of options, shopping for organic foods has gotten a lot more complicated. Use the Dirty Dozen and the Clean Fifteen to help save money and make the healthiest organic choices.

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