What is “organic” food?
The term organic in the context of food refers to specific farming methods and agricultural processing standards used by farmers in the United States to grow, produce, and/or process fruits, vegetables, grains, dairy, and meat. Organic agriculture techniques seek to improve soil and water quality, minimize pollution, construct safe and healthy livestock homes, and encourage natural animal behavior.1 To ensure product quality and safety of foods produced using organic methods, all farming, ranching, and forestry operations are inspected by the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA). These inspections account for the entire process from start to finish, and monitor soil quality, animal raising practices, pest and weed control, and use of chemical additives. Once a product has met the USDA organic standards, it can then be sold with the USDA Organic Seal of Approval on the packaging label.2,3
Is organic food healthier?
Unlike foods produced using conventional farming methods, organic foods are clear of synthetic pesticides and fertilizers, but they appear to offer no additional nutritional benefits. Studies shows that organically and conventionally cultivated foods had equal levels of vitamins, minerals, and carbs. However, researchers have found that eating a diet high in organic fruits, vegetables, and whole grains provides additional antioxidants that exceed the recommended daily intake by an extra 2 or more servings of fruit and vegetables.4–7
What fruits and vegetables should You buy organic?
The Environmental Working Group reports that the following fruits and vegetables, called “The Dirty Dozen,” contain the greatest amounts of pesticides, and thus should be purchased organic:8
3. Kale, mustard, and collard greens
10. Bell and hot peppers
The following group of fruits and vegetables, which the Environmental Working Group refers to as the “Clean 15,” have lower pesticide levels and are safe to purchase under conventional farming methods:9
2. Sweet corn*
6. Sweet peas (frozen)
14. Honeydew melon
Processed foods using organic ingredients
While organic foods are often seen as healthier, this isn’t necessarily the case. Many food industry companies strive to make their processed foods appear more nutritious by using organic ingredients; however, regardless of whether organic ingredients were used, processed foods, such as baked goods, sweets, and snacks, can still have a lot of added saturated fats and sugars, so pay attention to food labels.
While many organic foods are healthier, safer, more eco-friendly, and more delicious than many non-organic foods, there are plenty of conventionally grown foods that are just as safe and nutritious as organically grown foods. An increasing number of consumers are choosing to purchase organic foods due to growing concerns regarding use of pesticides, additives, antibiotics, and other chemical residues. Other consumers may choose organically grown foods to help reduce the negative impact conventional farming can have on biodiversity and on livestock’s ethical treatment.
1. Mayo Clinic Staff. Nutrition and healthy eating. 8 Apr 2020. Mayo Clinic site. https://www.mayoclinic.org/healthy-lifestyle/nutrition-and-healthy-eating/in-depth/organic-food/art-20043880. Accessed 12 Aug 2021.
2. McEvoy M. Organic 101: What the USDA organic label means. 13 Mar 2019. United States Department of Agriculture site. https://www.usda.gov/media/blog/2012/03/22/organic-101-what-usda-organic-label-means?page=1. Accessed 12 Aug 2021.
2. Chen J. United States Department of Agriculture (USDA). 8 Jun 2020. Investopedia site. https://www.investopedia.com/terms/u/usda.asp. Accessed 12 Aug 2021.
3. United States Department of Agriculture site. Agricultural Marketing Service. Organic grades and standards. https://www.ams.usda.gov/grades-standards/organic-standards. Accessed 12 Aug 2021.
4. Brandt K, Leifert C, Sanderson R, Seal CJ. Agroecosystem management and nutritional quality of plant foods: the case of organic fruits and vegetables. Crit Rev Plant Sci. 2011;30(1–2):177–197
5. Hunter D, Foster M, McArthur JO, et al. Evaluation of the micronutrient composition of plant foods produced by organic and conventional agricultural methods. Crit Rev Food Sci Nutri. 2011;51(6):571–582.
6. Asami DK, Hong YJ, Barrett DM, Mitchell AE. Comparison of the total phenolic and ascorbic acid content of freeze-dried and air-dried marionberry, strawberry, and corn grown using conventional, organic, and sustainable agricultural practices. J Agric Food Chem. 2003;51(5):1237–1241.
7. Baranski M, Srednicka-Tober D, Volakakis N, et al. Higher antioxidant and lower cadmium concentrations and lower incidence of pesticide residues in organically grown crops: a systematic literature review and meta-analyses. Br J Nutr. 2014;112(5):794–811.
8. Environmental Working Group site. The dirty dozen. https://www.ewg.org/foodnews/dirty-dozen.php. Accessed 12 Aug 2021. 9. Environmental Working Group site. The clean fifteen. https://www.ewg.org/foodnews/clean-fifteen.php. Accessed 12 Aug 2021