When comparing fruits in the grocery store, you have likely encountered organic options stacked beside their non-organic counterparts (often for a slightly, or even significantly, higher price). But is this price increase worth it? More specifically, is organic food better for you than non-organic food? That’s the question we’ll be answering in this article.
What is organic food?
According to the United States Department of Agriculture, organic foods are those that are grown and processed in line with federal guidelines. These guidelines regulate factors such as:
- Soil quality,
- Animal raising practices,
- Pest and weed control,
- Genetically modified organisms (GMOs), and
- Artificial chemicals
This means foods labeled as organic shouldn’t contain artificial sweeteners, preservatives, coloring, flavoring, or monosodium glutamate, also known as MSG (this is a controversial additive, but generally recognized as safe by the Food and Drug Administration. Its controversialty and potentially false claim to symptoms has a history of being rooted in Asian-American racism).
Oftentimes, organic doesn’t just mean without x, y, or z, but instead it encompasses a wider set of beliefs and approaches to food production. Specifically, at its best, organic farming emphasizes renewable resources, ecological balance, and conserving biodiversity. Indeed, in the case of some organic producers, they rely on natural farming methods. This is not the case for all organic produce, though. It’s important to note that the only true “natural farming” is biodynamic farming, which is not required for a product to be called ‘organic.’
Are there exceptions?
It’s important to understand that what it takes for a product to be labeled as ‘organic’ will vary depending on the type of food source.
For instance, in the case of produce, the USDA notes it “can be called organic if it’s certified to have grown on a site that had no prohibited substances applied for 3 years prior to harvest.” The National Organic Program (NOP) governs organic certification in the United States, and so any organization wishing to label their products as organic, need to have those products approved by an NOP accredited certification agency - such as Oregon Tilth. Examples of prohibited substances would be synthetic fertilizers and pesticides. Interestingly, the USDA does allow for certain produce to still be called organic in the case that a grower uses a synthetic substance to fulfill a specific purpose. However, these cases are exceptions and will need to be first approved by the USDA according to criteria that examine its effects on human health (and the environment too!).
In a nutshell? The USDA ensures that, for the most part, organic foods mean foods produced using farming practices that only use natural substances. An easy example would be organic farmers using animal manure that has been composted versus synthetic fertilizer.
Is organic food better for you, or just a fad?
An increasing amount of research (and money) has been devoted to answering this question in recent years. Unfortunately, there isn’t a consensus - yet.
So what does the data tell us so far?
Well, several studies have reported higher antioxidant levels, lower levels of toxic metals, and lower levels of pesticide residue in organic produce. This could be because, without pesticides, fruits and vegetables need to protect themselves from external harmful forces (such as bugs, disease, and small animals), and so this could result in the production of more protective compounds, such as antioxidants. Indeed, a handful of studies point to higher levels of not only antioxidants, but also macronutrients, such as vitamin C, zinc, and iron.
When it comes to animal products, there may be higher omega-3 fatty acid concentrations, alongside slightly higher amounts of iron, vitamin E, and carotenoids. Interestingly, not all studies have replicated the above findings.
The jury also seems to be out on how these mixed results - long term - translate to tangible health benefits. For instance, one animal study found chickens fed an organic diet experienced reduced weight gain and demonstrated a stronger immune system. Another comprehensive review which looked at multiple studies, including clinical trials and observational research, found that though pesticide excretion through urine was higher in nonorganic consumers (versus those that ate mostly organic), there was “insufficient evidence to show translation into clinically relevant and meaningful health outcomes.” Researchers did acknowledge, though, that long-term reduced exposure to pesticides could convert to improved health outcomes, but it is difficult to say, and they did not find enough compelling evidence for that case in their review.
Part of the issue in parcelling out the truth on this topic is the complexity of people’s lifestyles (which makes narrowing down one factor, like organic or nonorganic food consumption, in someone’s entire lifetime consumption as the root cause of a certain health benefit a challenge). For instance, consumption of organic food is often tied to not only socioeconomic factors - specifically higher disposable income - but also overall “healthier dietary practices” and exercise (interested in learning how exercise impacts your overall health? Check out our article here). Pair this with the fact that, as we noted above, organic farmers are allowed to include pre-approved synthetic pesticides in their produce, and still have their items labeled as certified organic - alongside items which contain absolutely no pesticides - only complicates existing and future research further.
It also may be worth noting that avoiding pesticides may be much more difficult than just opting for organic foods. Pesticides, spread through pesticide spray, can be found in plenty of non-food items, such as playgrounds, outdoor surfaces, and public parks. One study found, across 71 public playgrounds in Italy, that nearly half of playgrounds were contaminated by at least one pesticide. One quarter was affected by more than one, while 11 of the 12 detected pesticides were classified as “endocrine active substances”. Endocrine disruptors are serious business; otherwise known as hormonally active agents, they are chemicals that interfere with endocrine - hormonal - systems. Potential side effects include cancerous tumors, birth defects, and other developmental disorders.
Some good news? It looks like there is increasing awareness about the toxicity of certain pesticides. In 2021, New York City became the largest city in the US to “ban toxic pesticides from routine use by city agencies” and instead urge its parks to “control weeds, insects, and vermin with nature-based techniques of organic gardening.” Chicago and Baltimore have also taken steps to reduce pesticide use in urban spaces. There is still a lot of work to be done though: if you’re troubled by the use of pesticides, then we suggest also investigating the presence they may have outside of food, since their use has not been restricted to just agricultural use.
Bottom line on organic food
We feel comfortable saying that organic produce and animal products probably result in reduced pesticide exposure and consumption of less artificial chemicals compared to their nonorganic counterparts. However, the link to long-term, high-impact health benefits is weak as of right now. For instance, in a large observational study of over half a million women in the United Kingdom, researchers found no difference in cancer risk among those women who ate organic, compared to those that ate it regularly.
Given the mixed results and lack of concrete findings, it seems that if you can eat organic, and you would like to - then it may be worth it. Specifically, if you swap out your non organic produce for organic produce each week, then you may be able to tap into incremental nutritional benefits.
Perhaps what we can learn is most important, though, is not whether the food you put in your body is organic, but instead what you decide to consume full stop.
Specifically, an organic cake will never be healthier than a non organic apple. One is not ‘bad’ while the other is ‘good,’ but in terms of examining each item's nutritional profile, it is likely that produce and other unprocessed foods will always offer improved health benefits over processed foods.
What can be labeled organic?
So if you decide you would like to incorporate some organic foods into your diet - how do you know what to look for?
Luckily, the USDA has made our job as consumers relatively easy by enforcing labeling standards. (Keep in mind that other consumer goods, such as T-shirts and soaps labeled organic are not under as intense scrutiny!)
For the most part, a product cannot be labeled organic unless it is certified organic.
There is an exception: organic farms that sell less than $5000 in gross sales per year will find that they don’t need to be certified to advertise their products as organic. This doesn’t mean that their produce isn’t organic, it just means that they don’t have USDA certification: if you’re unsure, you can look on their website for an explanation of their process, or contact them directly to hear about their organic or sustainable farming methods.
If you happen to buy your produce or meat from farmers markets, you can ask to see a copy of the seller’s organic certification (which they are obliged to carry with them). Pro tip: organic food can cost less at farmers markets, thanks to lower shipping costs (another benefit of buying local) and the direct nature of the sale, sans middlemen.
Having said that, though, if you purchase most of your foods from a grocery store, you will not have to ask the seller directly - you’re instead likely to see the following label when a product is certified organic:
This label means that this product is either:
- 100% organic
- This product contains 100% organic ingredients (can include salt and water, which are considered natural by USDA)
- This product is 95% organic, with 5% of other substances that are on a USDA-approved list of substances
- Made with organic ingredients
- The product includes a minimum of 70% of organic ingredients. There are constraints on the ‘non organic’ ingredients which constitute the other 30% of the product
Here’s what a label may look like, stuck on a piece of produce:
This brand, Chiquita, sells organic bananas in supermarkets, and you can see their logo sandwiched between a 5 digit number (located at the top, known as a PLU) and the USDA certification (bottom). Organic foods will have a PLU that is 5 digits long and that begins with the number 9, while those treated with chemicals and pesticides will have four digits. Items that have been genetically modified are also four digits and begin with the number 8.
USDA is not the only ones who mark a product as organic. As we touched upon earlier, NOP also accredits certain organizations with the ability to sign off on products as organic (or not).
Some examples of accredited agencies may include:
- Organic Tilth
- Global Organic Alliance
- Quality Assurance International
- Organic Crop Improvement Association
And many more.
If you can’t afford to buy organic, but are bothered by the idea of consuming more pesticides than you have to, then keep in mind there are other ways to tap into the potential benefits organic food (tentatively!) offers.
First off, check out the Dirty Dozen list the Environmental Watch Group puts out each year. This is a list of the top produce items likely to have the highest levels of pesticides. Strawberries often top this list, along with spinach and peaches; if you are worried about pesticide consumption, consider occasionally replacing strawberries with blackberries, spinach with arugula or collard greens, and peaches with melon. Alternatively, wash all fruits and vegetables before consuming. Keep in mind that the produce on this list, when tested, always comes below the USDA maximum pesticide concentration allowed in produce, and organic produce can still have pesticides present.
It is also important to remember that research in this field is still growing. What we do know for sure, though, is that unprocessed foods - such as frozen and fresh produce, grains, and beans - are excellent sources of fiber, macronutrients, and vitamins. Check out our articles on PCOS: Foods to Love and figuring out the Best PCOS Diet for more information on how to develop a balanced, fulfilling diet that serves your body and long-term goals best.
Allara Health provides personalized treatment for hormonal, metabolic & gynecological conditions that utilizes a holistic plan that merges nutrition, lifestyle, medication and supplementation, and ongoing, expert support to heal your body.