Organic vs. Non-Organic Foods: What’s the Difference?

The signs in grocery stores and at farmers' markets always make us wonder about organic vs. non-organic foods. The difference? They're produced and processed in ways that reduce use of synthetic fertilizers and pesticides.

organic vs. non-organic

We pay more, typically, for organic vs. non-organic foods. What do we get for the added cost?

© Joseph Golby |

In examining the question of organic vs. non-organic foods, let’s start with the key word here: “organic.” Technically speaking, organic means that something comes from living (or formerly living) matter. That includes you and me, the birds and the bees, your morning cup of coffee or tea, and anything that grows on trees, shrubs, and vines.

Organic food products are different because they are grown and processed with organic farming methods, which exclude certain practices that are normal in the mass production of non-organic foods.

Proponents of organic farming point to benefits for the environment, like less water pollution and better soil quality. Organic meats come from livestock raised under more humane conditions. Organic produce and meat also may have higher levels of certain nutrients and fewer pesticide residues.


Wondering about whether it’s worth it to spend extra on organic foods? Click here to read our post Benefits of Organic Foods: What Research Shows.

Produce and Grain

Organic plant farming practices include:

  • No use of synthetic fertilizers, which may contain chemicals manufactured from fossil fuels. Instead, organic farmers rely on mulching, composting, and animal manure to enrich the soil.
  • No fertilizers derived from sewage sludge, which is the residue left over after human waste is processed.
  • No synthetic herbicides. Weeds are controlled with crop rotation, mulching, tilling, and hand weeding.
  • Avoid use of synthetic pesticides. Instead, organic farmers use organic approaches like insects that eat pests, traps, and naturally-produced pesticides. But there is a loophole: organic farmers may use certain chemical pesticides in small amounts, following regulations for USDA-certified organic foods.
  • No genetically engineered crops, more commonly known as genetically modified organisms, or GMOs. Some GMO crops are designed to produce natural pesticides or to be resistant to synthetic weed killers so farmers can apply more of them and increase crop yields.
  • No irradiation to kill diseases or pests, or to extend shelf life. Irradiation means exposing the food, dairy, or meat to ionizing radiation.


USDA-certified organic livestock production follows its own set of rules. This includes:

  • No use of growth hormones or antibiotics in cows, chicken, pigs, or other animals.
  • Animals are not fed with animal by-products, like fat, flesh, and blood from animals. The animals only eat organic feed or graze on natural grasses.
  • Animals raised for meat, eggs, and milk are provided access to outdoor space for fresh air, exercise, shade, shelter, and clean drinking water.
  • The livestock are raised on certified organic land meeting all organic crop production standards.

How to Shop Organic

Any food producer can claim its products are organic, but how do you know it’s the real stuff? Here are a few suggestions on how to be a savvy shopper.

  1. Don’t confuse “natural” and “organic.” Though the word “natural” on a food label may mean that the product does not contain artificial flavorings, preservatives, or other additives.
  2. If you buy at farmer’s markets, talk to the producer about their farming practices. Many producers enjoy and welcome this sort of interaction with customers.
  3. Look for USDA organic-certified labels. The USDA allows foods to be labeled organic if they pass with the agency’s certification process. The agency allows four types of organic food labels. Here are the basics of what the labels mean:
    • 100 Percent Organic: All ingredients and processing are organic. No GMOs. Complies with national list of ingredients and processing allowed in certified-organic foods.
    • Organic: 95 percent of ingredients certified organic. No GMOs. Complies with national list of ingredients allowed in certified-organic foods.
    • Made with Organic: Organic seal not allowed. At least 70% of ingredients certified organic. No GMOs. Complies with a list of ingredients allowed in certified-organic foods.
    • Organic Ingredients: Organic seal not allowed. No specific percentage of ingredients required to be organic. They may contain GMOs. Not required to comply with national list of ingredients allowed or not allowed in organic foods. Does not have to undergo USDA certification process.

Organic vs. Non-Organic: Choose “Cleaner” Produce

The Environmental Working Group (EWG), a nonprofit organization, publishes an annual report, the Shoppers Guide to Pesticides in Produce. The report is based on USDA pesticide residue testing.

According to the EWG, the following 15 fruits and vegetables have the least residues relative to other options: avocados, sweet corn, pineapples, frozen sweet peas, onions, papayas, eggplants, asparagus, kiwis, cabbages, cauliflower, cantaloupes, broccoli, mushrooms, and honeydew melons.

The following 12 fruits and vegetables have comparatively higher amounts of pesticide residues: strawberries, spinach, kale, nectarines, apples, grapes, peaches, cherries, pears, tomatoes, celery, and potatoes.

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Daniel Pendick

Daniel Pendick has been a contributing editor and writer for Belvoir Media Group’s Special Health Reports and Online Guides for a decade. He’s also served as executive editor for Harvard … Read More

View all posts by Daniel Pendick

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