Organic vs. Conventional Foods
Maine SNAP-Ed encourages participants to follow a healthy eating pattern focusing on whole fruits and vegetables as recommended in the latest Dietary Guidelines for Americans. Everyone should try to eat a diet rich in fruits, vegetables, whole grains, lean protein, and low-fat dairy products, whether those are conventional or organic foods. This type of diet has proven health benefits.
- Current evidence supports that organic and conventional foods appear equal in terms of nutritional value. Both conventional and organic foods have to meet pesticide residue standards set by the USDA before they are to be sold in the U.S. food system. While foods on the market meet these “safe levels” some organic foods have been shown to have even lower pesticide residue levels than their conventional counterparts.
- Organic does not necessarily mean the food is nutritious. Highly processed foods that contain organic ingredients will still be high in added sugar and fat.
Definition: Organic food is grown following the USDA National Organic Program standard. Organic food is regulated and monitored by the USDA. Organic farmers use renewable resources and conserve soil and water quality. In this way, organic farmers focus on leaving a better environment for the future. Organic farmers do not use man-made pesticides (with a few exceptions), fertilizer prepared with man-made ingredients or sewage sludge, or genetically engineered plants and animals.
Recognizing an organic product: Look for the official “USDA Organic” seal on the food label. To earn this label, the farmer has to be inspected by a government-approved certifier. They make sure the producer follows the required organic standards. Companies that handle or process organic foods have to be certified as well.
Claims: Be sure to check the label! The USDA has established an organic certification program that requires all organic foods to meet strict government standards regarding how foods are grown, handled, and processed. Any product labeled as “organic” must be USDA certified.
- 100% Organic – products are certified organic or made with only organic ingredients
- Organic – products that have at least 95% of their ingredients qualify as organic
- Made with Organic Ingredients – at least 70% of ingredients are certified organic
Nutrient Density: for every study that says organic food is nutritionally better than conventional, there is another to challenge it. Many things can affect food crops, such as the soil, the weather, what part of the country the food comes from, etc.
Pesticide residues on organic foods: There may be residue from pesticides used in organic food production, which include natural substances like plant oils and sulfur dust. Conventional foods may have residues of man-made pesticides that are used to protect crops from insects, weeds, and diseases. Organic foods typically carry a lower amount of pesticide residue than conventional foods.
Considerations when choosing organic products include pesticide use, food additives, and environmental farming practices. These are some of the reasons why people purchase organic foods. Pesticides are used to protect crops from molds, insects, and disease. While organic food producers are still able to use pesticides, the options for pesticides are very limited and exclude many synthetic pesticides. More research is needed in order to accurately determine the effect of pesticides on the body over time. USDA has set tolerable limits for pesticide residue that are recognized as safe for consumption. For more information, please visit The National Pesticide Information Center.
Choosing organic or conventional produce is a decision you make based on your family’s belief and budget. Based on the available research, there is no strong evidence to support buying organic solely for better nutrition. There is more, but not a significant amount, of evidence for purchasing organic to reduce pesticide exposure. More research is needed in order for dietary recommendations to focus on choosing organic produce.
You may also be able to reduce your pesticide exposure from conventional fruits and vegetables by washing before eating, and by peeling off the outer skin. Wash fruits and vegetables under clean, running water in a clean sink. Fresh fruits and vegetables should not be soaked in water. Do not use detergents, soaps or bleach to wash produce. These products may change the flavor and could be poisonous. If the fruits and vegetables are firm (such as potatoes or melons), scrub them with a clean, sanitized fruit/vegetable brush. For soft fruits and vegetables (tomatoes), gently rub them with your hands to loosen the dirt. Also remove the outer leaves of lettuce and cabbage before washing them.
- Strassner, C., Cavoski, I., Di Cagno, R., Kahl, J., Kesse-Guyot, E., Lairon, D., … Stolze, M. (2015). How the Organic Food System Supports Sustainable Diets and Translates These into Practice. Frontıers ın Nutrıtıon, 2, 19. http://doi.org/10.3389/fnut.2015.00019
- Nutrition and healthy eating. (n.d.). Retrieved November 24, 2015, from http://www.mayoclinic.org/healthy-lifestyle/nutrition-and-healthy-eating/indepth/organic-food/art-20043880?pg=2
- Smith-Spangler, Crystal, et al. “Are organic foods safer or healthier than conventional alternatives?: a systematic review.” Annals of Internal Medicine5 (2012): 348-366.
- Holzman, David C. “Organic Food conclusions don’t tell the Whole story.”Environmental health perspectives12 (2012): a458.
- Forman, Joel, et al. “Organic foods: health and environmental advantages and disadvantages.” Pediatrics5 (2012): e1406-e1415.
- Barański, Marcin, et al. “Higher antioxidant and lower cadmium concentrations and lower incidence of pesticide residues in organically grown crops: a systematic literature review and meta-analyses.” British Journal of Nutrition05 (2014): 794-811.
- McCulloch, Marsha. “Organic vs. Conventional: Which is Better?”. Today’s Dietitian. 2015; 17(4): pg 40. Available at: http://www.todaysdietitian.com/newarchives/040715p40.shtml. Accessed on: January 26, 2016.
- For information about organic agriculture please visit the USDA’s National Organic Program which is the regulatory program responsible for developing national standards for organically-produced agriculture.
- USDA has a number of videos that explain how farmers gain certification and what they are required to meeting: https://www.youtube.com/user/USDAAMS
- For more information about pesticides, please visit: The National Pesticide Information Center.
- For instructions on washing fresh produce, review the following websites and videos:
- How to: Washing Fruits and Vegetables. University of Maine Cooperative Extensions. 2013. Available at: http://umaine.edu/publications/4336e/.
- Handling Fresh Fruits and Vegetables Safely. University of Minnesota Extension. 2015. Available at: http://www.extension.umn.edu/food/food-safety/preserving/fruits/handling-fresh-fruits-and-vegetables-safely/.