I often get questions about whether or not organic produce is healthier than conventional produce (in this article, I will use non organic and conventional interchangeably). The answer is a little complicated and depends on how we define health, but I'll break it down below.
Calories & Nutrients in Organic Food vs Convectional Food
Calories and nutrients are the same in organic and non-organic foods. They differ based on the substances they use or do not use in growing the food. There are some chemicals used in conventional farming that are harmful to our health, but this does not mean we have to only buy organic produce to be healthy.
First let's look at the definitions of organic and GMO.
(1) Organic: the USDA certifies organic products based on national requirements they have outlined. For a product to be labeled organic, it must be grown in soil that has not been exposed to prohibited substances in the past three years and must be planted with organic seeds. However, some synthetic substances are approved for use in soil fertility, crop nutrition, and managing crop weeds, diseases, and pests. Organic products only need to contain 95% organic ingredients.
An interesting fact: a producer who has less than $5,000 in annual gross sales from agriculture does not have to be certified by the USDA in order to label their food organic. USDA organic regulations still apply to them, but they cannot use the USDA organic seal. I'm guessing this is likely the case for some of the small farms and produce sellers that we see at local farmers markets.
"Made with organic [specific ingredient]" (1): contains at least 70% organically produced ingredients.
GMO (2): according the The Non GMO Project, a GMO is a genetically modified organism "whose genetic makeup has been modified in a laboratory using genetic engineering or transgenic technology. This creates combinations of plant, animal, bacterial, and virus genes that do not occur in nature or through traditional crossbreeding method".
GMOs cannot be used in organic foods however, not all non GMO food is organic.
So, is organic food healthier than conventional food?
A review of research found no difference between organic food and non-organic food in terms of nutrient levels (carotenoids, polyphenols, antioxidants, and DNA damage) (3). That's fantastic news because it means that if we have to choose organic or not organic food for whatever reason, we are not compromising the nutrients in that food.
The study did find that people who ate more organic than non organic food had less pesticides in their bodies and that this could possibly correlate with positive health outcomes (3). However, there is not enough evidence to explicitly say that it is better for your health to consume only organic food (3).
Since it may be unrealistic for most people to buy 100% organic food, the Environmental Working Group (EWG) tests and ranks the pesticide contamination of popular fruits and vegetables. The "clean fifteen" and "dirty dozen" list was developed by the EWG to help consumers prioritize which produce to buy organic and which are OK to buy conventional. This list is updated yearly.
So what is my recommendation? When at all possible, stick to buying organic produce from the "dirty dozen" list and you are OK to buy non organic produce from the "clean fifteen" list.
Clean 15 from 2021
Lower in pesticides. OK to buy non-organic.
- Sweet corn
- Frozen sweet peas
- Honeydew melon
*In the United States, a limited amount of sweet corn, papaya, and summer squash are produced from genetically modified seeds. To avoid genetically modified produce, buy organic varieties of these crops.
Click here to see the "clean 15"
Dirty Dozen from 2021
Higher in pesticides. Try and buy organic if you can.
- Kale, collard, and mustard greens
- Hot and bell peppers
Click here to see the "dirty dozen" list.
Have any questions about organic food? Leave them in the comments below!