Amy Christie | Feb. 21, 2018

We’ve all heard the nutritional buzzword organic tossed around. We hear "eat organic food, it’s better for you," or, "buy organic food, it’s healthier and safer." The term organic is definitely on trend. But there are so many questions! Let's jump right in.

What does organic mean?

The USDA states that an organic food product has been produced without synthetic fertilizers, sewage sludge (can we say a collective “ew”?), irradiation and genetic engineering. Organic livestock must be produced without genetic engineering or ionized radiation and managed in a manner that conserves natural resources and biodiversity. Basically, organic foods and farming should be friendlier to the planet and post less harm to human health

Because foods contain varying amounts of organic ingredients, the USDA uses a labeling system to group products. A “100 percent organic” label means the product is made solely with organic ingredients. The “USDA Organic” or “Certified Organic” label means the contents are 95% or more certified organic. And finally, the label “made with organic ingredients” is for products containing at least 70% organic ingredients. Do take the labels with a grain of salt. Experts say the labeling system is not without its flaws.

Now that we understand what is and isn't organic food and better understand organic labeling, let's tackle the big question.

Is organic food better for me? Safer? More nutritious?

Scientific opinion continues to be divided on whether there is a big nutritional difference between organic and non-organic foods. Some studies have shown a small to moderate difference in various nutrients like flavonoids which have antioxidant properties. Omega-3 fatty acids, the heart-healthy fat, are found in higher levels in organic meats, dairy and eggs due to the feeding requirements of organic livestock. Additionally, eating organic foods may reduce exposure to pesticide residues and antibiotic-resistant bacteria. Thumbs up all around for that. The clincher is deciding whether these differences are enough to recommended organic over conventional food. The jury is still out on that.

With the last word unsaid, it's up to us to decide our own priorities. What is important is to include healthy, nutritiously dense foods in your diet no matter what. Also consider the impact of those choices on the planet. Organic food typically costs more than non-organic food so figure out what your budget affords. Buying foods in season and locally will be kinder to your wallet. Pick foods with a variety of sources and read labels carefully. Use labeling requirements to find out where your fruits and vegetables are grown - sometimes certain countries have safer options for conventionally grown produce. And finally, washing fresh fruits and vegetables thoroughly helps to remove dirt, bacteria and chemical traces from the surface though some pesticide residues will remain.

The organic vs. conventional decision

Research completed by the USDA and FDA can help consumers to make informed decisions when buying conventional and organic fruits and vegetables. Here is a great, comprehensive list of 15 types of produce that you should always try to buy organic, and 11 types that you can opt for conventional. It was determined by current research and testing on the amounts of pesticides found on every kind of fruit and vegetable. Much of the data published is used by various groups to determine the safety of crops sold in the US. This list is extensive and contains the best recommendation of conventional and organic produce possible. Check out the Jen Reviews article for the reasons why, but here's the general idea:

To Buy Organic OK to Buy Conventional
Green Beans Avocados
Hot Peppers Cucumbers
Spinach Kale
Apples Lettuce
Grapes Eggplant
Cherries Onions
Pears Sweet Corn
Tomatoes Pineapples
Celery Cabbage
Peaches Papayas
Strawberries Asparagus
Sweet Bell Peppers  
Sweet Potatoes  


Organic farming, food and products aren't perfect but the evidence is mounting that with more thoughtful practices, the products are better for the earth and our health. Whether you decide has none, a little or a lot of organic foods, you can now count yourself better informed.