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Understanding Organic

By Lisa Heneghen, MPH RD CSO CNSC

You may have noticed nearly identical fruits, vegetables and meat next to each other in the supermarket, however one is labeled “organic”, and wondered what that means. Or you have heard from a friend who only feeds their family organic food to optimize their health. But what does organic really mean? Should you make the switch to filling your cart with more organic food?

the word organic spelled out with colorful leaves

To first understand what it means to be “organic”, recognizing the agriculture practices to produce food is essential. The United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) describes organic agriculture as the application of a set of cultural, biological and mechanical practices that support the cycling of on-farm resources to promote ecological balance and conserve biodiversity. This includes a variety of practices such as promoting soil fertility by adding animal manure, rotating crops to promote biodiversity, utilizing cover crops to protect against erosion and avoiding use of biosolids or sewage sludge to soil for fertilization. These practices contribute to the preventative strategy in managing pests, weeds and diseases. If necessary, organic farmers utilize insecticides naturally derived from plants and microorganisms rather than synthetic pesticides (1).

When it comes to organic raised livestock, organic livestock must have access to adequate outdoor spaces to allow for grazing as well as access to drinking water, rather than be confined to overcrowded indoor spaces that may not provide the same level of cleanliness and activity. The health and safety are of utmost importance, thus balanced organic nutrition, exercise and a low stress environment is optimal to promote strong immune function of the animal. Vaccinations are utilized in organic farming; however, antibiotics and growth hormones are not (2).

Once the product is in the grocery store, organic foods are easily identified by the USDA Organic seal (pictured). This seal is included on items that are either 100% organic ingredients or at least 95% organic ingredients. In a product that is made with less than 70% organic ingredients, the USDA organic seal is not included, however the organic ingredients are listed on the information panel (2).

There are many reasons to choose specific foods – taste, nutrition content and cultural influences to name a few. One may wonder if organic food is more nutritious than its nonorganic counterpart. Clinical trials have shown that there are no or minimal differences between organic and non-organic when it comes to single nutrient biomarkers tested (lycopene, for example). However, there are measured changes in pesticide excretion (in subject’s urine, breast milk and semen) during whole diet substitution trials. During the organic diet substitution trials, lower amounts of pesticides secreted was observed (3).

Additionally, in observational studies, there has been positive associations between organic diet consumption and health implications such as fertility, birth defects, allergic sensitization, non-Hodgkin lymphoma and metabolic syndrome. This is largely related to the lower amount of pesticide content in organic products rather than the nutrient content of the organic food compared to the nonorganic counterpart (3).

With all these items to consider, is organic food superior? This really depends on personal values regarding the way food and livestock are farmed, comfort level with pesticides in your food, accessibility and affordability of organic food. The health implications of consuming organic versus conventional produce may also influence choice in choosing organic over conventional.

Thinking about swapping conventional produce for the organic counterpart? One method in incorporating more organic food into your shopping cart is considering the Environmental Working Group’s (EWG’s) “Dirty Dozen”. The EWG updates this list each year to provide the produce with the greatest pesticide contamination, where one may consider choosing the organic version (4).

The EWG’s Dirty Dozen for 2020:

  1. Strawberries

  2. Spinach

  3. Kale

  4. Nectarines

  5. Apples

  6. Grapes

  7. Peaches

  8. Cherries

  9. Pears

  10. Tomatoes

  11. Celery

  12. Potatoes


  1. Introduction to Organic Practices, United States Department of Agriculture:

  2. Organic Labeling Standards, United States Department of Agriculture:

  3. Vigar V, Myers S, Oliver C, Arellan J, Robinso S, Leifert C. A systematic review of organic versus conventional food consumption: Is there a measurable benefit on human health? Nutrients. 2019;12(1):7.

  4. Shopper’s Guide to Pesticides in Produce, Environmental Working Group:

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