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Hello! I’m Anjali. I’m a board certified health coach, author, wife, mom and food lover from the SF Bay area (now living in Seattle, WA!); with a passion for delicious food and a desire to make healthy eating easy, tasty and fun! Learn more about me here and stay for a while!

Anjali Shah

Is Organic Food Really Better? What Does Organic Even Mean Anyways?

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Organic foods are everywhere these days! Oftentimes they cost more, and they are definitely marketed to be healthier. But is organic food really better?

is organic food really better - photo of organic farmer holding veggies

The skeptics say that there’s no difference between an organic apple and a regular apple, or organic milk vs. regular milk – that it’s just a ploy to extract more money out of consumers.

If that were the case, it would really be sad – all of us health-seeking consumers would be getting duped into buying more expensive food products without any additional value!

The good news is – there have been lots of articles recently touting the benefits of organic foods – but also providing realistic guidelines about when it’s “worth it” to buy organic.

What Does It Mean For Food To Be Organic?

In order for a food to be called organic it must pass federal guidelines. These guidelines include soil quality, how animals are raised, pest and weed control, and additives.

A food can be called organic if the producers or farmers of that food use natural substances. In some cases physical, mechanical or biologically based farming methods are used.

What Qualifies As Organic?

Organic certified produce must be grown in soil that has no prohibited substances for at least three years. Prohibited substances include synthetic fertilizers and pesticides.

Produce can be called organic if it’s certified to have grown on soil that had no prohibited substances applied for three years prior to harvest. If a farmer does use synthetic substances, that substance must first be examined to determine the effects it might have on both humans and the environment.

Organic foods must meet the following requirements (source):

  • Provide safe, healthy environment for livestock
  • Use organic food for animals
  • Pasture feeding for at least 30% of livestock’s food supply
  • Have no synthetic fertilizers
  • Use no sewage sludge as fertilizer
  • Use no synthetic pesticides
  • Use no irradiation to preserve food or to eliminate disease or pests
  • Use no GMOs / genetic engineering (used to reduce disease, improve pest resistance or to improve crop yields)
  • Use no antibiotics or growth hormones for livestock

Organic farms also aim to:

  • Enhance soil and water quality
  • Reduce pollution
  • Enable natural livestock behavior
  • Promote a self-sustaining cycle of resources on a farm

Is Anything Really Organic?

Yes! In the United States a food is organic if it has met the organic standards of the USDA. This means that it will be certified organic.

You will know if a food is organic if it has the USDA organic seal, it’s certified organic, or if the product contains 95% or more organic ingredients.

Do ‘Organic’ And ‘Natural’ Mean The Same Thing?

No, organic and natural do not mean the same thing.

Natural foods are not necessarily organic. When you see something called “natural” it is thought to be minimally processed, and does not contain artificial ingredients, flavors, or substances. It also likely doesn’t contain hormones or antibiotics.

However, the term “natural” is not regulated, so food manufacturers can use the term “natural” and it may not really mean anything. “Natural” foods may be grown in soil that uses pesticide or other synthetic fertilizers. In addition, “natural” foods do not consider animal welfare, and could contain GMOs.

Organic foods on the other hand have much stricter restrictions. No toxic pesticides, GMOs, antibiotics, growth hormones, and organic foods have detailed certification requirements and inspections.

Is Buying Organic Better For The Environment?

In short, yes, buying organic is better for the environment. Organic farming creates more sustainable farming practices. By eliminating pesticides in farming you will see the following environmental impact:

  • Improved biodiversity
  • Creates better soil quality
  • Reduced pollution from fertilizer and pesticide run-off

What Effects Do Produce/Farming Pesticides Have On Children Or Adults?

people gathered around the table with a bunch of different healthy foods to share

Both adults and children can have negative health effects when exposed to pesticides in farming.

A short term health effect is known as an acute risk, whereas a long term health effect is known as a chronic effect.

What Are The Possible Risks Of Consuming Pesticides?

For children and infants exposed to pesticides there are both long term and short term risks of consuming pesticides. Infants and children are more vulnerable to the toxic effects of pesticides.

  • Chronic effects include ADHD, autism, cognitive effects, birth defects, low birth weight, pediatric cancer.
  • Acute effects include stinging eyes, rashes, blisters, nausea, dizziness, diarrhea.

For adults the risks might include:

  • Chronic effects like cancers, reproductive harm, neurological and developmental toxicity, immunotoxicity, and disruption of the endocrine system.
  • Acute effects include stinging eyes, rashes, blisters, nausea, dizziness, diarrhea.

For more information on the effects of pesticides visit Pesticide Info.

Does Washing And Peeling Fruits And Vegetables Get Rid Of Pesticides?

While you can wash and peel your fruits and vegetables using a stiff brush to remove some residue, there is no way to remove all pesticide residue.

Even peeling, washing, and scrubbing is not 100% effecticve.

Does Organic Mean Pesticide-Free?

Here is where it gets a little tricky. Organic does not mean pesticide free. However, it does mean the fruits and vegetables were not grown with the use of synthetic pesticides.

They may, however, have used natural pesticides. Anything that is used to get rid of a pest is considered a pesticide, whether it is made with synthetic or natural ingredients.

Natural pesticides are less toxic than synthetic pesticides, but that still doesn’t mean they are 100% safe or won’t cause harm to the environment. But if you’re choosing between natural or synthetic pesticides, natural will typically be safer.

If you are looking for a a fruit or vegetable that hasn’t used any type of pesticide, instead of looking for something labeled organic, look for something labeled pesticide-free.

Is Organic Food Safer?

Both organic and traditionally farmed produce has the same nutritional value.

However, there is growing evidence that consuming organic foods is safer and healthier than traditionally grown foods.

The lack of synthetic pesticides, GMOs, and other potentially harmful farming practices reduces the risk of both the acute and chronic conditions associated with exposure to synthetic pesticides.

Are Organic Foods Really Healthier?

farmer picking up a box of produce from the ground on a farm growing lettuce and cabbage

Organic foods are not healthier in terms of the nutrients you get. For example, and organic apple, and a regular apple still have the same amount of calories, fiber, vitamins and nutrients.

Similarly, an organic cookie will always be less healthy than a non-organic apple.

However, purchasing and consuming organic vegetables, fruits, meats, and dairy means that you are not getting the same exposure to hormones, antibiotics, and synthetic pesticides. This makes organic food safer to consume, and therefore healthier from the standpoint of exposure to artificial ingredients and chemicals.

Is Organic Food More Nutritious Than Regular Food?

Nutrition is defined as the components of a particular food (e.g. fat, protein, carbs). From that perspective, no, organic food is not more nutritious than regular food. The same amount of calories, fat, fiber, protein, vitamins and minerals are in both organic and non-organic vegetables, fruits, meats, and dairy.

Is Organic Meat Better For Your Health?

Eating organic meat means that you will not have the same exposure to added hormones and antibiotics that you would get if you were eating non-organic meat.

Estrogen may be given to cattle to increase the meat they yield. Antibiotics are also given to cattle to promote growth. While its unclear what amount of antibiotics and hormones are still present in non-organic meat, the risk is there.

Are There Downsides To Buying Organic?

More Costly: The biggest downside of buying organic is the cost. It costs more money to buy organic vegetables, fruits, meats, and dairy. Buying organic means that your grocery bill will be higher for the same amount of food.

Nutrition is the Same: If you are only concerned about the nutritional value of your food, then you will see no distinct benefit to buying organic. The nutritional value of organic and non-organic food is the same.

Still Used Pesticides: Organic produce still uses pesticides, however, remember that the pesticides used in organic farming come from natural sources and are not the harmful chemicals that lead to both long and short term health concerns.

Why Is Organic Food More Expensive Than “Regularly” Grown Produce And Meat?

meat, produce, eggs in basket on wood table - organic foods shown for determining is organic food really better

Organic food costs more than regular food because the cost of production is higher. There is more labor involved, and farmers don’t produce as much of a crop as they would if they were non-organic, so the overall cost is higher.

Not only is the production ore expensive, but also the processing. Organic produce has to be sorted and distributed. Since there is not as much organic produce, the processing and distribution is more expensive.

Is Going Organic Worth The Cost?

That really depends on what you value, and if you have the budget to buy organic foods.

If you want to reduce your exposure to potentially harmful chemicals that could result in both chronic and acute health problems, then going organic is definitely worth the cost.

My recommendation is to follow the dirty dozen and clean 15 guides to help you determine which produce is most important to buy organic to reduce exposure. See below for my recommended list of organic fruits and vegetables to buy.

Organic Produce, Dairy, And Meat – Oh My!

milk, cheese, nuts, meat, fish, and produce on display

There are so many organic foods out there; from produce, dairy, meats, and even packaged foods. Here is what you need to know when you go to the grocery store.

What Is Organic Milk?

Organic milk has four main differences to conventional milk.

  1. Cows must not be treated with antibiotics.
  2. Cows must not be gives hormones for growth or reproduction.
  3. The cows must get at least 30% of their diet from pasture. And the pasture itself must be organic (no synthetic fertilizer or pesticides used on the grass the cows graze on)
  4. The cows entire diet must be organic foods (so if cows are fed grain or feed, it must be organic grain/feed)

Is Organic Milk Healthier Than Regular Milk?

Milk producers treat their dairy cattle with recombinant bovine growth hormone (rBGH or rBST, as it is also known) to boost milk production.

But rBGH also increases udder infections and even pus in the milk. It also leads to higher levels of a hormone called insulin-like growth factor in milk. In people, high levels of IGF-1 may contribute to breast, prostate, and colon cancers.

While these differences might not seem like a lot, they can make a big difference.

Drinking milk free from antibiotics means that you are reducing your exposure to any residual antibiotics that might make their way into the milk.

You also reduce your exposure to hormones. The additional exposure to estrogen can reduce testosterone levels in men and children, and can have an effect on puberty and maturation.

What Foods Should You Eat Organic?

So – what should you buy organic? When it comes to produce, I recommend following the “dirty dozen” list for what you should buy organic whenever possible. The dirty dozen are the fruits & veggies that have the highest amounts of pesticides among all the produce out there. (See below for more details on the dirty dozen and the full list)

Which is why I recommend buying produce on the EWG’s Dirty Dozen list organic. Additionally, I recommend buying organic milk, eggs, and other dairy items such as cheese. If you eat meat, I also recommend buying meat organic to reduce exposure to hormones and antibiotics.

What Should You Not Buy Organic?

You do not need to buy the produce on the EWG’s Clean 15 list organic. See below for the specific produce that is safe to buy non-organic.

What Animal Products, Like Dairy, Meat And Eggs Are Must-Buy Organic?

The short answer is — all 3 of these categories (Dairy, Meat and Eggs) are must-buy organic!

Dairy: Buy organic milk, cheese, yogurts, and other dairy products. These foods are made from cows milk. When buying non-organic you run the risk of consuming antibiotics and hormones.

Meat: Buy organic chicken, grass-fed organic beef, and wild fish.

Eggs: Buy free range eggs. It’s even better if you can get your eggs from a farm. This means that the hens have some access to the outdoors, and have more space. Most organic eggs are also free range.

Is It Safe To Buy Non-Organic Meat?

In general, I do not recommend buying non-organic meat or corn fed beef. If your budget doesn’t allow for buying organic meat 100% of the time, just buy organic whenever you can!

The reason I recommend only buying organic meat is because a recent comprehensive study conducted by the USDA and researchers from Clemson University found that compared with corn-fed beef, grass-fed beef is higher in beta-carotene, vitamin E, omega-3s, conjugated linoleic acid (CLA), calcium, magnesium, and potassium; lower in inflammatory omega-6s; and lower in saturated fats that have been linked to heart disease.

Similarly, when it comes to fish, I also recommend buying wild whenever possible. Especially when it comes to salmon.

Nature didn’t intend for salmon to be crammed into pens and fed soy, poultry litter, and hydrolyzed chicken feathers. As a result, farmed salmon is lower in vitamin D and higher in contaminants, including carcinogens, PCBs, brominated flame retardants, and pesticides such as dioxin and DDT.

Fruits And Vegetables Where Organic Matters!

fruit tray with citrus fruits, berries, and more

There’s a simple list of 12 fruits/veggies called the “dirty dozen” – that if possible, you should absolutely buy organic. They have the highest amounts of pesticides among all the produce out there. They are:

  1. Strawberries
  2. Spinach
  3. Kale
  4. Nectarines
  5. Apples
  6. Grapes
  7. Peaches
  8. Cherries
  9. Pears
  10. Tomatoes
  11. Celery
  12. Potatoes

Fruits And Vegetables You DON’T Need To Buy Organic

vegetables closely together including peppers, broccoli, squash, tomatoes, cauliflower - is organic really better

According the EWG’s 2020 Shoppers Guide, the following produce is on their Clean 15 List. These fruits and vegetables are safe to buy no-organic.

  • Avocados
  • Sweet Corn
  • Pineapple
  • Onions
  • Papaya
  • Sweet Peas (Frozen)
  • Eggplant
  • Asparagus
  • Cauliflower
  • Cantaloupe
  • Broccoli
  • Mushrooms
  • Cabbage
  • Honeydew
  • Kiwi

Overall, Is Organic Food Really Better?

I would say, yes, overall organic food really is better for your health and worth the investment.

If you are on a budget, or just beginning to introduce organic foods into your diet, start with buying the dirty dozen organic as much as possible. And then if you can, add in organic dairy, eggs and meat.

I hope this post helped you to navigate the world of organic foods and figure out what foods to buy organic for you and your family!

Check Out These Other Helpful Food Guides!

5 responses to “Is Organic Food Really Better? What Does Organic Even Mean Anyways?”

  1. My good friend is from Brazil and she recently shared a popular smoothie recipe with me. It’s simply an avocado blended with soy milk (I prefer almond milk) and a bit of sweetener (I used Stevia). As we talked and sipped, I told her about the Dirty Dozen list (she had no idea). So I popped over here to grab this list and share it with her. I knew you’d have it broken down nicely with additional tips as to what we should avoid. You’re so helpful! Thank you!

    • Awww of course!! I’m so glad this list was helpful to both you and her! 🙂 Thanks for letting me know Rica!

  2. There are various fine points I have researched over the last 18 months (since my senior seminar was begun, in anthropology, with interest in security/rights of food and herbal medicine) regarding GMOs, herbicides and pesticides, “certified” organic labelling, the USFS and BLM, Codex Alimentarius standards and regulations, and more. These points are listed at the disclosed blogspot link. Please read them thoroughly and pass on the knowledge! The more people aware of these things, the better. We don’t live in the house we think we do.

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