I often get questions about whether or not organic produce is healthier than non organic/conventional produce (for the purpose of this article, I will use non organic and conventional interchangeably). The answer is a little complicated and depends on how we are defining healthy but I will break it down below.
Calories and Nutrients in Organic vs Convectional Food
As far as calories and nutrients go, organic and non organic food are the same. The difference between the two is found in the substances that are being used or not used to grow the food. Some of the substances that are used in conventional farming aren't necessarily great for our health, but I do not think that means we have to choose all organic or all conventional produce.
First, let's break down some definitions:
Organic (1): the USDA certifies products as organic based on national requirements that they have set forth. Produce can be labelled as organic if it is grown in soil that has not had any of the prohibited substances used in it the previous three years and the crop must be grown using organic seeds. There are some synthetic substances approved for use to help with soil fertility, crop nutrients, and managing crop weeds, diseases, and pests. Products labeled as organic only have to actually be 95% organic.
Fun fact: if the producer has less than $5,000 in gross sales from agriculture, they do not need to be certified by the USDA to label their food as organic. They are still expected to follow the USDA organic regulations, however they can not use the USDA organic certified seal. I'm guessing this is likely the case for some of the small farms and produce sellers that we see at local farmers markets.
"Made with organic [specific ingredient]" (1): contains at least 70% organically produced ingredients.
GMO (2): according the The Non GMO Project, a GMO is a genetically modified organism "whose genetic makeup has been modified in a laboratory using genetic engineering or transgenic technology. This creates combinations of plant, animal, bacterial, and virus genes that do not occur in nature or through traditional crossbreeding method".
No organic foods can be made using GMOs. However, all non GMO food is not necessarily certified organic.
So, is organic healthier than conventional produce?
A systematic review was done looking at the research up to 2019. They found that there was no difference in the nutrient levels of organic versus non organic food (they looked at things like carotenoids, polyphenols, antioxidant levels, and DNA damage) (3). This is great news, meaning that if we need to choose between organic or non organic for whatever reason, we are not necessarily compromising the nutrients found in that food!
The study did find that people who consumed more organic than non organic food had less pesticides in their urine and that his could possible correlate with positive health outcomes(3). However, there is not enough evidence to explicitly say that it is better for your health to consume only organic food (3).
Since it can be unrealistic for most of us to buy everything 100% organic, the Environmental Working Group (EWG) tests and ranks the pesticide contamination of popular fruits and vegetables. These foods are ranked after they are washed as if they were ready to be eaten by the consumer. This list is updated each year as to provide the most up to date information. This group developed the "clean fifteen" and "dirty dozen" list to help you to prioritize which produce to buy organic and which are OK to buy conventional.
So what is my recommendation? When at all possible, stick to buying organic produce from the "dirty dozen" list and you are OK to buy non organic produce from the "clean fifteen" list.
Clean 15 from 2021
Lower in pesticides meaning OK to buy non-organic
Frozen sweet peas
*A small amount of sweet corn, papaya and summer squash sold in the United States is produced from genetically modified seeds. Buy organic varieties of these crops if you want to avoid genetically modified produce.
Click here to see the "clean 15"
Dirty Dozen from 2021
Higher in pesticides meaning try and buy organic if you can
Kale, collard, and mustard greens
Hot and bell peppers
Click here to see the "dirty dozen" list.
Have any questions about organic food? Leave them in the comments below!