Organic and conventional foods are both nutritious and safe options.
It’s no secret I have a thing for ag. I don’t know why. I just think it’s fascinating to learn how our food is grown and produced. Today we are so far removed from the process; I love to connect the land, farmer and food to me and you.
In my quest for learning as much as possible about our food processes, I take every opportunity I can for farm tours and continuing education re: farming and agriculture. (BTW did you know one difference between Registered Dietitian Nutritionists and “nutritionists” is we require at least 75 CEUs every five years for our RDN credential? That doesn’t include CEUs required for maintaining state licensure). It’s not just so I can educate you, it’s actually selfish because I want to know how our food is made. And I ask all the hard, buzzy questions.
What’s the Difference Between Organic and Regular Foods?
The big difference between organic (and I’m talking USDA Organic seal) and non-organic (AKA “conventional”) foods is how they’re produced. The USDA Organic seal is an agricultural stamp. It is not a health stamp. Per the USDA, organic foods are produced in a manner to “rely on natural substances and physical, mechanical and biologically-based farming methods to the fullest extent possible.”
That means that yes, your organic cookies are still cookies. Although a common misconception about organic foods is they are “pesticide-free,” on the contrary organic foods can use approved natural and synthetic pesticides and herbicides (read on for more on this). As with conventional produce, all organic produce should still be washed prior to consumption.
Are Organic Foods Better For You?
By and large, organic foods are not nutritionally superior to conventional foods (see this highly-publicized systematic review done at Stanford in 2012). There are some organic foods that may have minor nutritional advantages over conventional foods (like higher omega-3s in organic milk compared to regular milk or higher antioxidant activity in some organic fruits and vegetables). Although some nutritional differences may be statistically significant, they’re generally not clinically significant enough to make a sizable impact on your health.
What do I mean by statistically significant but not necessarily clinically significant? For example: Organic milk contains ~0.07g of omega-3 fatty acids per serving (.03g per 100g/milk, typical serving = 240mL), compared to one serving of salmon boasting ~1.5-2 g (1,2). That means one serving organic milk contains a mere 3-4% of the amount of omega-3s you would find in salmon. The bottom line is, you’re not drinking milk to meet your omega-3 needs (while we’re at it, the same goes for grass-finished vs. conventional beef).
What that means for you is that you have choices. It matters that you eat nutrient-rich foods. It matters less exactly how it’s grown. Why? Because we’re lucky to live in the United States of America which has arguably the safest food system in the world. If you are not in a position to purchase organic produce or foods, you need not feel guilty in feeding your family conventionally-grown foods. If you have the pocketbook to make a decision, you can feel comfortable buying either organic or conventional.
USDA Organic Seal: It’s Kind of a Big Deal
The United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) houses the National Organic Program (NOP), which is the federal regulatory program that develops and enforces national standards for organically-produced products in the US. These USDA Organic standards are very strict and the well-recognized, brown seal cannot be put on products without a very rigorous, expensive and long certification process. This also means that there may be farmers using organic farming practices without their products bearing the organic seal or wording, solely because of expense for said certification.
If the USDA Organic seal is present on a product, it means that the product is certified organic by the USDA and contains at least 95% organic content (1). That means everything going into that product along the way has to be organic as well. For example, organic livestock would need to have been fed 100% organic feed; and multi-ingredient products like a soup or crackers would be made of all organic ingredients (3,4).
What Does “Made with Organic Ingredients” Or “Natural” Labeling Mean?
The term “made with organic ingredients” may be used on a label if 70% of the product is made with certified organic content (4).
There is no formal definition from the FDA for the term “natural” (5). It has been considered to mean that nothing artificial or synthetic has been included in that food. It does not define agricultural methods of production.
(Love nerdy nutrition myth-busting? Check out these articles on whether or not canned goods are all that bad or what you should know about antibiotics and hormones in meat).
Can Organic Foods Use GMOs?
GMOs (Genetically Modified Organisms) cannot be used in organic products (6). This also means organic livestock would not eat any GMO plants. Personally, this is insignificant to me. In the words of the National Academies of Science, Engineering, and Medicine, there is “no substantiated evidence that foods from GE crops [are] less safe than foods from non-GE crops (7).” We can argue about agricultural biodiversity but in terms of safety, GMOs are absolutely safe. I think of GMOs as the Wi-Fi of ag. We’ve been breeding plants for thousands of years; now we can do it faster and more isolate traits incredibly specifically.
Organic Foods Can Use Pesticides and Herbicides
A common misconception about organic foods is that they “don’t use any chemicals.” While organic foods use many naturally-occurring pesticides, organic foods can also use some synthetic pesticides, herbicides and insecticides. You can view the full list of permitted substances here.
Organic pesticide residues are not tested annually as part of the National Organic Program, although some are included in the annual Pesticide Detection Program (PDP) results along with conventional produce. Per the 2019 PDP results, nearly 99% of products sampled had pesticide residues below the allowable EPA limits. Of these 9,697 samples, 8.7% (845 samples) were organic. Pesticide residues were found on both organic and conventional products, again largely well-below EPA limits. (Note: There was one pilot study performed in 2010-2011 with the USDA and NOP on USDA Organic Residues. Given that data is 10 years old, I’ve decided not to include it).
Growing Organic is a Business Decision
The decision for a farmer to grow organic or not (and I’ve met farmers who do both on separate plots of land) is a business decision. With organic growing, you get the inherent “health halo” along with green marketing and an uptick in pricing. It’s expensive for the farmer to get certified, but it can be a good economic decision in the long-run if you’re able to stay in business and scale. I think it’s important for consumers to understand that a farmer’s decision to not grow or go organic is not an ethical decision. It’s very expensive and tedious to transition from a conventional to organic farm.
Both organic and conventional foods are safe to eat and nutritious. One is not inherently safer, better, or more nutritious. Both organic and conventional produce should be washed before consumption. The decision to grow organic vs. not is a business decision. The decision to choose organic or not is yours.
For me, personally, I do not seek out organic foods. If organic strawberries look better than conventional that week, then I may buy them instead but it’s pretty rare. On the other hand, many packaged foods I buy are organic, mostly because a lot of packaged goods that are organic happen to also be the healthier (lower sodium, less ingredients) choice that I feel better about making.
For you, many food purchases are an emotional decision: you feel good about this product vs. that regardless of the science or facts, and that’s okay! Choose organic or conventional, whichever fits your priorities and your pocketbook. I care that you eat nutritious foods, I care less if it’s organic or conventional.