Many people want to know if organic produce or other products are healthier than conventional. To really address this, I think some definitions need to be clarified:
Organic refers to the way a product (or its ingredients) were grown or processed. According to the EPA, “‘Organically grown’ food is food grown and processed using no synthetic fertilizers or pesticides. Pesticides derived from natural sources (e.g., biological pesticides) may also be used in producing organically grown food.”
In order for a product to be sold, labeled, or represented as organic or made with organic ingredients, the producer must be certified by a USDA-accredited certifying agent. This certification is costly and is the reason why you may encounter many local farmers at farmers markets, for example, who use organic growing practices but who don’t advertise their products as such.
You can find more information about the requirements for organic food production here.
Natural is a term that is not regulated. Meaning that it could really be (and is) put on a variety of products because the consumer associates the term with health, however it doesn’t really mean anything. As I’ve heard before, snake venom is natural, but that doesn’t mean it’s good for you. There are several products claiming to be “all-natural” that I wouldn’t buy after taking a look at the ingredient list. I think there is a possibility that we will see more regulation surrounding this term in the future.
Now, back to organic. Is it healthier? From a nutrient perspective, not really. An organic apple will have the same vitamins and minerals as a conventional apple. Same with organic snack foods – organic cookies are the same as regular cookies, just made with flour, sugar, etc. that was produced according to organic standards.
As with many of the additives you see in highly processed foods, we don’t really know the long-term health impacts of consuming pesticides on foods. It likely comes down to the amount of exposure and a variety of other factors, but more research is definitely needed. For now, we recommend that the “dirty dozen”, or the top 12 most highly pesticide-contaminated foods, be purchased organic, if possible, to cut down on pesticide exposure.
The Environmental Working Group just released their latest list of the 48 fruits and vegetables with pesticide residue.
The top 12 have the greatest amounts of pesticides and, if you are concerned with pesticide exposure, these are the ones you would want to buy organic:
apples, strawberries, grapes, celery, peaches, spinach, sweet bell peppers, imported nectarines, cucumbers, cherry tomatoes, imported snap peas, potatoes
The “clean fifteen” are the foods with the lowest amount of pesticide residues and can be found at the end of the Environmental Working Group’s list. These are:
sweet potatoes, cauliflower,cantaloupe, grapefruit, eggplant, kiwi, papaya, mangoes, asparagus, onions, frozen sweet peas, cabbage, pineapple, sweet corn, and avocado.
Other foods of low concern when considering which to purchase organic are ones that you peel before eating, like bananas or oranges.
The reality is that organic produce is often much pricier than conventional and, at the end of the day, the health benefits of eating fruits and vegetables far outweigh any known risks of consuming conventional over organic. If cost is an issue, look for sales and consider purchasing some of the produce from the dirty dozen list when possible. However, don’t let these lists discourage you from eating a variety of fruits and vegetables, whether conventional OR organic.
Check out a summary of the Environmental Working Group’s findings here.
[Photos used with permission by the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics]