“Organic” is one of the many labels that can be found on both whole and processed foods throughout the grocery store.
Everything from apples to chicken to potato chips can be found with an “organic” label.
What does it really mean if food is “organic”?
Organic food is grown without most synthetic fertilizers and pesticides1. In the US, organic labels on produce indicate that prohibited substances, including most synthetic fertilizers and pesticides, have not been used in the soil for at least three years before harvest.
Organic labels on meat mean that the animals did not receive antibiotics or hormones, had living conditions that allowed them to participate in natural behaviors such as grazing on pasture, and ate organic feed and forage.
Organic labels on foods with multiple ingredients also signify that the foods contain organic ingredients and do not contain artificial preservatives, colors, or flavors.
By definition, organic agriculture aims to support animals and the environment. However, the definition of “organic” doesn’t tell us whether organic foods are necessarily safer, healthier, or more sustainable options for the consumer.
Let’s explore these considerations to determine whether organic options are truly the best options for you.
1. Safety of Organic Foods vs Non-Organic Foods
An obvious concern when deciding whether organic food choices are better is whether they are safer. Because of the difference in agricultural practices and substances used, it is obvious that there are less residues from synthetic fertilizers and pesticides present on organic produce.
The Environmental Working Group (EWG) puts out a list each year with conventionally farmed foods that are most and least likely to contain pesticide residues2. This year the produce most likely to have pesticide residues are strawberries, spinach, kale, nectarines, apples, grapes, peaches, cherries, pears, tomatoes, celery, and potatoes.
Produce with thick peels or skins protecting the fruit or vegetable tend to have less residues on the edible portions. The produce least likely to have pesticide residues this year are avocadoes, sweet corn, pineapples, frozen sweet peas, onions, papayas, eggplants, asparagus, kiwis, cabbages, cauliflower, cantaloupes, broccoli, mushrooms, and honeydew melons.
On the other hand, the lack of pesticides and other substances on organic produce may lead to an increased contamination risk. For example, one study of vegetables from Polish farms found that organic produce had higher contamination risk – specifically of E. coli – which may have been due to differences in fertilization practices3. Contamination risk of organic produce is an emerging area of research that requires further investigation.
When it comes to meat and dairy, the use of antibiotics in conventional animal production is concerning due to the increase in antibiotic resistance4. For instance, the risk of bacteria being resistant to antibiotics is higher in conventional chicken and pork than organic5. It is more difficult to treat infections in humans and animals when bacteria become resistant to antibiotics.
2. Are Organic Foods Healthier?
Does the lack of pesticides, hormones, antibiotics, and other substances mean that organic products are healthier? No. In fact, there is a lack of evidence that organic food choices are more nutritious than conventional5.
A recent review found limited nutrient differences in organic vs. conventional crops (higher phenolic content and lower cadmium content in organic crops) and higher omega-3 content in organic dairy and perhaps organic meat4. However, there is a lack of evidence regarding differences in most minerals6. Taken together, research so far indicates either no differences or subtle differences in a few nutrients between organic and conventional food choices.
When it comes to nutrient content of foods, there may be other, more relevant factors to consider than agricultural practices. For example, cooking method, such as freezing or steaming, can change the nutrient content of foods7.
Based on current evidence, there are greater concerns than organic vs. conventional when it comes to how nutrient-dense a particular food is. Additionally, while there may be emerging evidence of subtle nutrient differences, there is no evidence of any long-term impact on health from organic vs. conventional food choices.
3. Sustainability of Organic Foods
Sustainability may be the most complex factor to consider because it has two meanings; a diet can be sustainable regarding its impact on the earth or sustainable regarding one’s potential to adhere to the diet for an extended period of time.
When we talk about impact on the earth, the answer is clear: organic is almost always more sustainable than conventional. Taking care of the soil, plants, and animals is ideal.
Unfortunately, conventional food systems, i.e. intensive agricultural systems, aim to keep costs low and efficiency and production high, and plants, animals, and the earth suffer as a result. For instance, many chickens raised for food are virtually man-made and lack the ability to sexually reproduce.
The second meaning of sustainability is more complex, as it depends on the individual. Cost, convenience, and taste are just some of the factors to consider when determining whether buying organic is sustainable for you.
Organic foods are almost always more expensive than their conventional counterparts. For many of us, they are often inaccessible as well. Next time you go food shopping, take note of how many fresh produce, meat, and dairy options are offered without an organic option.
Lastly, while organic foods do not necessarily taste different than conventional foods, conventional practices may allow for produce to be modified, giving them a different look or flavor. Similarly, organic meat may taste different because the animals had different diets during their lives as compared with their conventional counterparts.
Organic food options are not necessarily safer, healthier, or more sustainable. It’s up to you to decide whether buying organic is worth the higher price tag.
The cost difference between organic and conventional varies depending on the specific food, but organic is more expensive than conventional across the board. For fresh produce, the higher price tag often means less pesticides, but in some cases, it may also mean an increased risk of contamination.
For animal products, the use of antibiotics in conventional products may have a long-term negative health impact not just for you, but for the entire population. Although there is some evidence for higher nutrient content in organic food options, there is not enough evidence to make any sort of absolute statement that organic food options are healthier than conventional.
When it comes to foods’ nutrient content, there are many factors aside from organic vs. conventional to consider, such as geographic location of production, seasonality, soil quality, and method of preparation.
If safety is a concern, you may want to refer to the EWG’s “clean” and “dirty” lists and buy organic meat when possible. However, if you can’t find or afford organic food choices, there’s no reason to panic.
Even though organic foods might be more sustainable for the planet, they might not be more sustainable for you. Most farms in the US are conventional farms that aim to maximize input and output per unit of land area and consist of concentrated animal feeding operations (CATO), i.e. “factory farms,” and managed intensive rotational grazing (MIRG), both of which allow for maximizing use of space.
However, whole and minimally processed foods are high in nutrients no matter what agricultural practices were used to grow them.
Ultimately, it is up to you to decide whether eating organic makes the most sense for you. There is no reason to avoid conventional food choices if organic options are not available or accessible. Eating conventional fruit, vegetables, grains, legumes, dairy, and meat is better than avoiding any of these foods simply because you cannot afford or find the organic option.
- 1. Organic 101: What the USDA Organic Label Means. https://www.usda.gov/media/blog/2012/03/22/organic-101-what-usda-organic.... Accessed May 10, 2019.
- 2. Environmental Working Group. EWG’s 2019 Shopper’s Guide to Pesticides in ProduceTM. https://www.ewg.org/foodnews/. Accessed May 10, 2019.
- 3. Szczech M, Kowalska B, Smolińska U, Maciorowski R, Oskiera M, Michalska A. Microbial quality of organic and conventional vegetables from Polish farms. Int J Food Microbiol. 2018;286:155-161. doi:10.1016/j.ijfoodmicro.2018.08.018
- 4. Mie A, Andersen HR, Gunnarsson S, et al. Human health implications of organic food and organic agriculture: a comprehensive review. Environ Health. 2017;16. doi:10.1186/s12940-017-0315-4
- 5. Smith-Spangler C, Brandeau ML, Hunter GE, et al. Are organic foods safer or healthier than conventional alternatives?: a systematic review. Ann Intern Med. 2012;157(5):348-366. doi:10.7326/0003-4819-157-5-201209040-00007
- 6. Zhao Y, Wang D, Yang S. Effect of organic and conventional rearing system on the mineral content of pork. Meat Sci. 2016;118:103-107. doi:10.1016/j.meatsci.2016.03.030
- 7. Palermo M, Pellegrini N, Fogliano V. The effect of cooking on the phytochemical content of vegetables. J Sci Food Agric. 2014;94(6):1057-1070. doi:10.1002/jsfa.6478