You’ve probably heard that following an organic diet is better for your health and the health of the environment. But what does ‘organic’ really mean, and how does organic food differ from non-organic or conventional food?
In this article, we’re breaking down the differences between organic vs non-organic food. We’ll dive deep into the science to find out whether an organic diet is truly the healthier way to eat.
What Defines Organic Food?
As public concerns over pesticide exposure and the environmental impact of conventional farming methods grow, so does the demand for organic food. In fact, people spent over 100 billion dollars on organic food in 2019, up from 18 billion dollars in 2000.
Common reasons why people choose organic products over conventional ones include wanting to reduce their exposure to pesticide residues. Others also choose organic to lessen their impact on the environment.
Even though many people prefer to eat organically, few know what ‘organic’ actually means when it comes to food.
When a product is certified organic, it means that the food was grown or raised according to federal guidelines. These guidelines regulate soil quality, additives, pesticide use, and more. Here’s what it takes for certain products to carry the USDA Certified Organic Label:
- Produce: Must be grown in soil that has no prohibited substances. This includes synthetic fertilizers and pesticides— applied for three years prior to harvest.
- Meat, poultry, and eggs: Animals cannot have antibiotics or hormones and must eat 100% organic feed and forage. The animals must be living in conditions accommodating natural behaviors like grazing.
- Multi-ingredient products: Must be made with organic ingredients and free from artificial preservatives, flavors, and flavors.
If a product carries the “made with organic ingredients” label, it means that it has at least 70% organically produced ingredients.
Additionally, organic food can’t be grown or handled using genetically modified organisms (GMOs).
Keep in mind that many farmers grow organic produce and raise animals organically and humanely but aren’t certified organic by the USDA. To find local farms with organic practices, you can contact local farmers to ask about their farming practices.
What’s the Difference Between Organic vs. Non-Organic Food?
Unlike organic food, conventional food like vegetables, fruit, and grains can be treated with synthetic fertilizers, pesticides, and herbicides.
Perhaps the most notorious synthetic herbicide is glyphosate or Roundup. Conventional farmers use this herbicide because it’s highly effective at killing weeds. Unfortunately, the widespread use of Roundup in conventional farming has led to massive environmental damage. With excessive use, it results in higher glyphosate residues in our food.
Although organic farmers can use approved pesticides, fertilizers, and herbicides, they can’t use synthetic products like Roundup, and most of the approved products are naturally occurring. The Organic Materials Review Institute (OMRI) publishes a list of products allowed for use on organic farms, including pesticides and herbicides, that’s publicly accessible. By using naturally occurring materials, organic farming methods are more sustainable for the planet and for the health of our soil.
Raising animals using conventional methods can eat non-organic feed, and farmers can use genetically engineered feed. Unlike organic farmers, conventional farmers don’t have to give the animals they raise access to outdoor space. Outdoor space is important to give animals room to perform natural behaviors like grazing and dust bathing.
Is Organic Healthier?
A number of studies have shown that some organic foods tend to have higher levels of certain nutrients than non-organic foods.
A brand new study published in January of 2023 that studied 13 organic and non-organic plant foods found that organically grown vegetables had the highest antioxidant capacity and the greatest abundance of phenolic compounds. The study also found that when comparing organic vs. non-organic fruits the organic foods had a higher antioxidant capacity compared to non-organic fruits.
Organic eggs have been found to be higher in certain nutrients, like folate and essential amino acids, than non-organic eggs. Organic eggs from pastured hens are even more nutritious. They prove to be higher in many nutrients like vitamin E and lutein, compared to conventional and traditional farming systems.
Additionally, organic dairy products like milk and cheese have a healthier lipid profile compared to non-organic dairy, with lower levels of saturated fat and higher levels of beneficial fatty acids like conjugated linoleic acid, which has anti-obesity and heart health-promoting properties. Organic meat has also been shown to have a healthier fatty acid profile compared to conventional meat. It also has higher levels of anti-inflammatory omega-3 fats.
What’s more, organically-grown produce has lower levels of pesticide residue. This means that if you follow an organic diet, you’re ingesting fewer potentially harmful compounds. This may be why people who follow organic diets are at a lower risk of conditions like infertility, allergies, pre-eclampsia, metabolic syndrome, obesity, and certain cancers.
In fact, studies show that switching to an organic diet can significantly reduce urinary pesticide levels in children and adults.
However, keep in mind that buying organic doesn’t always translate to “healthy” or “healthier.” There are plenty of organic products like sugary cereals, baked goods, and candy that can harm health if eaten in excess.
The cost of eating organic, is it worth it?
Your dietary intake depends on several factors, including your income, your access to food, and personal preferences.
In general, organic food is more expensive than non-organic food. This is because organic farming methods used to grow produce and raise animals are more costly. For this reason, many people can’t afford to eat only organic foods.
Also, many people don’t have access to organically-grown products because they live in areas that don’t offer nutritious foods. These areas are often referred to as food deserts. It’s estimated that more than 23 million people in the US currently live in food deserts without access to healthy food.
Although there are benefits to eating organically, it’s more important to consume a nutritious diet high in plant foods like fruits and vegetables. For some people, this may mean eating exclusively organic foods. Others may choose to purchase specific organic foods, like fruits and vegetables, that tend to be highest in pesticide residue.
Others may only be able to afford or only have access to conventional food.
If you’re concerned about pesticide residue but aren’t able to purchase organic food like fruits and vegetables, you can significantly reduce pesticide residue levels by thoroughly scrubbing, and washing produce in cold water and peeling fruits and vegetables known to be high in pesticide residue, like apples, potatoes, and peaches.
If you live in a rural area, you can visit local farms and ask them about their growing practices. Remember, many farms that use organic farming practices aren’t certified organic by the USDA. Oftentimes, local farms sell organic produce and animal products at lower prices compared to grocery stores.
Final thoughts on organic vs. non-organic foods
Studies show that when comparing organic farming methods vs. non-organic, organic farming methods are better for the environment, animal welfare, and human health than conventional farming.
Choosing to follow an organic diet can reduce your exposure to harmful substances like pesticide residue. It may lower your risk of several health conditions, like certain cancers.
However, some people don’t have access to organic foods or can’t afford to eat an entirely organic diet, and that’s okay.
In order to promote overall health and reduce disease risk, it’s most important to consume a diet rich in whole, nutrient-dense foods. Foods like vegetables and fruits, whether they’re organic or conventionally grown, are still our healthiest options.
This website is for informational purposes only and should not be taken as medical advice. Before making any changes to your diet, exercise, or lifestyle habits, always consult your doctor or physician first.