Is Organic Food Better For You?

Organic food is no longer out of reach for most Americans. But is the organic choice always the better option? That depends.

Child holding a basket of organic produce

Some products are better bought organic. Refer to the the "Dirty Dozen" for a list of fruits and vegetables that contain the most pesticides.

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Americans are embracing organics like never before. Once scant on supermarket shelves, organic foods have gained coveted space alongside their conventional food counterparts, whether produce, meats, dairy, or packaged foods. Organic food sales grew more than 12% in 2020, to nearly $62 billion—more than double the growth of the year before, according to data from the Organic Trade Association. Clearly, demand has increased as more people are choosing organic over conventionally grown and raised foods, but are these products really the better choice? Though the answer is not always so clear cut and the decision to choose organic foods may depend on what’s most important to you.

What Makes Food Organic?

Organically grown foods are produced on farms that mostly avoid synthetic pesticides, herbicides, or fertilizer and are free from genetic modification. As for livestock, they are fed organic feed, live on organic land, and are raised without routine use of growth hormones or antibiotics. Processed organic foods contain no synthetic additives. Foods that meet these criteria may become certified organic by the U.S. Department of Agriculture and carry the USDA Organic seal. To carry the seal, 95% of a food must be organic. Smaller producers are not required to have official USDA certification (it is an expensive process) to call their products organic, but they may not use the USDA Organic seal.

Organic vs Non Organic Food: Three Degrees of “Better”

Determining whether organic is better for you depends on what’s important to you and your family. Some people choose organic foods because they believe they are nutritionally superior and better for health than conventionally grown foods. Others prefer organic foods because they believe they are produced with methods that are better for the environment and the health of farm workers. Still, others gravitate to organics for what they perceive as better flavor.

1. Nutrition and Health

Studies have reported higher antioxidant levels and lower levels of toxic metal and pesticide residue in organically grown plant foods as well as higher omega-3 fatty acid concentrations in dairy products, eggs, and meat, but not all studies support these findings. More research is needed regarding the many variables impacting in the nutrient levels of crops. Additionally, organically grown crops are not necessarily pesticide-free. Growers are permitted to use non-toxic and safe pesticides and certain USDA-approved synthetic pesticides. It is important to note, both organically raised and conventionally raised crops must stay within maximum levels of pesticides according to Environmental Protection Agency standards, based on levels determined safe for human consumption.

2. Environment and Farm Worker Welfare

Use of synthetic pesticides and fertilizers may harm the soil, depleting it of valuable nutrients and contaminating it, nearby water sources, the animals that eat them, and the air that farmworkers breathe. Studies have linked exposure to some of these pesticides with certain cancers. The EPA has banned the use of many of the most toxic pesticides. Organic agricultural practices utilize more sustainable farming methods for the soil, which promote ecological balance and biodiversity in the environment.

3. Taste

For something as subjective as taste, some studies have shown that people have reported a taste preference for organic foods. These studies are not only small, but human opinion is just that—opinion. The flavor of food is as diverse as one’s preference for food. A food’s flavor is somewhat dependent upon many variables including the soil, the location and the climate in which it is grown, the specific farming methods used, and how the product is transported to market. An organic label does not necessarily promise better flavor, it just confirms the process of how it was grown and raised.

What Foods to Buy Organic

Though the price gap is narrowing with the increased availability of organic foods, they are usually more expensive than their conventionally grown and raised counterparts. In many cases, this could be anywhere from 5% to 50% higher, though there are ways to purchase them at lower prices to help fit into your budget, such as comparing prices, buying produce in-season, or finding deals at your local farmers market.

Let’s be clear – you don’t have to purchase solely organic foods. Certain fruits and vegetables, for example, may not be worth buying organic. Those with thick or inedible skins will have very little pesticide residue. When you wash them at home before eating, you’ll remove even more. The Environmental Working Group, a third-party organization that tests produce each year for pesticide residue levels, publishes a Clean Fifteen list of the fruits and vegetables that are safest to eat without buying organic and the Dirty Dozen of the twelve you should definitely purchase organic because they contain the highest pesticide residue levels.

The Bottom Line on Organic vs Non Organic Food

Nutritionally, there is no significant benefit to eating organic foods. Organic and conventional foods contain very similar nutrient levels. The choice to purchase organics comes down to the preference regarding how the food is cultivated. That’s where the focus of your decision between organic versus conventional falls. Your thoughts about the impact of synthetic pesticides and fertilizers, growth hormones, and antibiotics on your health and the health of the planet may ultimately influence your choice.

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Kristen N. Smith, PhD, RDN, LD

Kristen N. Smith, PhD, RDN, LD, has been the Executive Editor of Environmental Nutrition since 2018. As a Registered Dietitian/Nutritionist, Kristen is experienced in the areas of weight management, health promotion, and … Read More

View all posts by Kristen N. Smith, PhD, RDN, LD

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