Ashley Lovetere, Lee Health Registered Dietitian

Organic food products are more popular than ever, with consumers seeking to live their best lives when it comes to their food choices.

Why choose organic foods over conventional foods? Let’s review what organic means and how it affects our health so you can make the best decision for you and your family.

  • What does organic mean?

    According to the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA), “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. Prohibited substances include most synthetic fertilizers and pesticides.”

    For a list of prohibited substances, visit the USDA website. It’s important to note that a product labeled “USDA organic” doesn’t mean it doesn’t have pesticides. Some organic farmers use pesticides that are derived from plants per USDA guidelines.

  • Pesticides: do organic farmers use them?

    The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) defines an organic product as “Any substance or mixture of substances intended for preventing, destroying, repelling, or mitigating any pest, use as a plant regulator, defoliant, or desiccant, or use as a nitrogen stabilizer.”

    Farmers use pesticides to help protect their crops and use their land more efficiently. Pesticides are designed to (in most cases) kill pests. However, many pesticides can also pose risks to people. Generally, however, people are likely to be exposed to only very small amounts of pesticides – too small to pose a risk.

    A common misconception is organic products are farmed without pesticides. Organic farmers are allowed to use pesticides that are made from plants. In fact, 99.9 percent of pesticides are produced by plants.

    The EPA conducts extensive testing and research to determine the safety of pesticides. The agency assesses the risks associated with individual pesticide active ingredients, as well as with groups of pesticides that have a common toxic effect. For example, take formaldehyde, a naturally occurring chemical found in apples and pears, at safe levels. The EPA determines the limit or “tolerance” level of substances like formaldehyde that remain on human foods.

  • Dirty Dozen

    You may have seen the “Dirty Dozen” or “Clean 15” of the Environmental Working Group (EWG). Every year, the EWG releases a list of fruits and vegetables it deems as having the most pesticides.

    The EWG uses test data from the USDA to develop its list. The organization doesn’t take into account what the chemical is, or the concentration and the tolerance levels are, as indicated by the EPA. Also, the list excludes organic farming, which also uses pesticides. As a result, the EWG list is not without controversy.

    If you’re are concerned about consuming high amounts of pesticides and negative health outcomes, you can also visit Safe Fruits and Veggies. This is a resource for determining produce safety and will tell you how much you can eat of a certain food without being affected by pesticides. For example, a woman can eat 946 cherry tomatoes in one day without any effects from pesticides. As you can see, it’s the amount of a chemical on a food product that determines whether or not it is poisonous to consume.

  • Nutrition

    Contrary to media claim, research studies have found little to no significance in organically grown produce versus conventionally grown in terms of nutritional value.

    In 2021, a comprehensive systematic review (Dangour, Alan D. et al.) found no evidence of a difference in nutrient quality between organically and conventionally produced produce. A 2012 report (Smith-Spangler C. et al.) concluded: “The published literature lacks strong evidence that organic foods are significantly more nutritious than conventional foods with the exceptions of phosphorus.” Similar findings were also stated in 2017 (Mie A. et al.), which stated, “The nutrient composition differs only minimally between organic and conventional crops, with modestly higher contents of phenolic compounds in organic fruit and vegetables.”

  • Conclusion

    If you enjoy the taste of organic products, great! Keep eating your fruits and vegetables. If organic is not in your budget, that is okay, too! As the science says, there’s no significant difference between the groups, and you will get just as much nutrition with conventional products. It is important that we support each other’s fruits and vegetables consumption without judgment on where it has come from.

  • References

    Mie A, Andersen HR, Gunnarsson S, et al. Human health implications of organic food and organic agriculture: a comprehensive review. Environ Health. 2017;16(1):111. Published 2017 Oct 27. doi:10.1186/s12940-017-0315-4

    Dangour, Alan D et al. “Nutritional quality of organic foods: a systematic review.” The American journal of clinical nutrition vol. 90,3 (2009): 680-5. doi:10.3945/ajcn.2009.28041

    Smith-Spangler, Crystal et al. “Are organic foods safer or healthier than conventional alternatives?: a systematic review.” Annals of internal medicine vol. 157,5 (2012): 348-66. doi:10.7326/0003-4819-157-5-201209040-00007

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