Organic vs Non-Organic Produce

Elizabeth Mann

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January 18, 2021
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What is “organic” produce?

When entering the grocery store, you will likely stroll through the produce section first where various fruits and vegetables are displayed. You have probably noticed certain  produce items are labeled “organic,” while others are not.  This disparity may have left you wondering what exactly the organic distinction means and if there are any real benefits in choosing organic produce.

(8)

When produce is labeled organic it refers to how it was grown and processed. In the United States, specific regulations must be followed in the production of organic produce. The regulations require crops to be grown without the use of (3):  

  • Synthetic or chemical fertilizers 
  • Chemical herbicides 
  • Synthetic pesticides 
  • Genetically modified organisms (GMOs) 

The table below lists the differences in farming methods used for organic and non-organic produce. Growing organic produce requires the use of more natural farming methods. A common misconception about organic produce is that they are free of pesticides, when in fact naturally derived pesticides are used as opposed to synthetic pesticides. 

Organic vs. Non-Organic Produce (3)

Farming MethodsOrganicNon-Organic
Fertilization Manure and compost  Synthetic or chemical fertilizers such as sewage sludge- or petroleum-based 
Weed removal Crop rotation, hand weeding, mulching, and tilling Chemical herbicides 
Pests removal Naturally controlled through birds, insects, and trapsNaturally derived pesticides Synthetic pesticides 
GMOsGrown without the use of bioengineered genesGrown with bioengineered genes 

Is there a benefit to consuming organic produce?

The potential health benefits of consuming organic over non-organic produce is a controversial research area. There is little variation in macronutrient content (protein, carbohydrates, and fat), but organic crops may have higher antioxidant concentrations, specifically polyphenols (5) compared to non-organic produce.  It is essential to also consider what organic produce does not contain. Organic food products have shown to have fewer:

  • Toxic metabolites – The most common toxic chemical found in soil and absorbed by plants is cadmium. Significantly lower levels of cadmium have been found in organic grains, but not in fruits or vegetables (1). 
  • Pesticide residues – Lower levels of pesticide residue have been detected in organic produce compared to non-organic produce (3). 
  • GMOs – Biogenetic engineering commonly occurs in non-organic produce to alter the DNA to be pesticide-resistant or produce an insecticide. There is currently an ongoing debate about whether GMOs are safe, even though the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and biotech companies claim they are. There are currently no long-term human studies confirming the safety of GMO use (3). This area is still controversial, and more research needs to be done.

To help determine which fruits and vegetables are highest in pesticides, the Environmental Working Group (EWG) has analyzed government pesticide testing results in the United States. The foods contaminated with the most pesticides are added to a list referred to as the Dirty Dozen (4). 

EWG’s Dirty Dozen for 2020 

  • Strawberries 
  • Spinach 
  • Nectarines 
  • Apples 
  • Grapes 
  • Peaches 
  • Cherries 
  • Pears 
  • Tomatoes
  • Celery 
  • Potatoes 

If helping the environment is something you are passionate about, you may prefer to purchase organic produce. Consuming organic produce has many environmental benefits including (7):  

  • Air and climate change More carbon is returned to the soil, which increases the carbon dioxide removed from the atmosphere while also lessening global warming. 
  • Water Water quality impairment is reduced due to decreased nutrient runoff and leaching, enhanced soil structure, better nutrient retention, and water filtration. 
  • Biodiversity Improvements in biodiversity are enhanced by using various seeds and breeds, employing different combinations of plants and animals, obtaining maintenance and planting of natural areas within and around organic fields, and using minimal synthetic inputs. 
  • Soil – Properly taking care of the earth is essential to organic practices. Organic soil practices enhance nutrient cycling and water retention, improve soil structure, feed soil life, reduce erosion, and replenish soil organic matter.

Correct labeling of organic produce

How do you know if your product is certified as organic or not? Check for the labels created by the USDA. The USDA uses an organic seal that allows farms and businesses to sell, title, and represent their organic products. The organic seal verifies compliance with the USDA organic regulations. If a producer is selling less than $5000 in organic foods per year, they are still allowed to label their products as organic without going through the certification process but are not allowed to use the official USDA label (1). The three distinct labeling categories for organic products include (2):  

  • 100 percent organic – Only contains ingredients that are certified organic.
  • Organic – At least 95% of the ingredients must be certified organic. 
  • “Made With” organic – Contains at least 70% certified organic ingredients. 

 USDA organic seal (2)

Shopping Organic

One downside to purchasing organic produce is  that they tend to be more expensive than  non-organic produce. The extra costs exist  for several reasons, such as (9): 

  • Supply is limited – The demand for organic produce is higher than the supply. 
  • Production cost – There is a greater labor input per unit of output, which increases the value.
  • Post-harvest handling – A separation of organic and non-organic produce is required, which increases the cost of processing and transportation.  
  • Marketing and distribution – There are inefficient systems for marketing and distributing organic food products. The small volumes increase the cost. 

Deciding whether to splurge for organic produce can be a tough decision. Still, several approaches are available to help keep the cost within your budget and enjoy those organic fruits and vegetables free of guilt!

  • Buy in season – When fruits and vegetables are in season, they are cheapest and freshest (3). 
  • Shop at a farmer’s market – Several cities host their own farmer’s markets once or twice a week. They contain various fruits and vegetables that have been grown locally and are typically sold at a lower cost than grocery stores(3). 
  • Shop around – By comparing the cost of organic produce from grocery stores, farmer’s markets, and other venues, you can ensure you are getting the best deal (3). 
  • Wash produce – Washing fruits and vegetables will help remove bacteria, dirt, and some pesticides. Peeling can further decrease contaminants, but this may also reduce nutrient content (1). 
  • Organic does not always mean healthy – It is crucial to remember that organic does not always mean healthy. As previously mentioned, it is not necessary to purchase all organic fruits and vegetables. The food industry also uses the organic label to make foods sound healthier, even if they are high in sugar, fat, or calories (3). 

Include a variety of foods from different sources – Choosing a diversity of fruits and vegetables reduces the risk of overexposure to one pesticide and increases the variety of nutrients (1).

References:

  1. https://www.mayoclinic.org/healthy-lifestyle/nutrition-and-healthy-eating/in-depth/organic-food/art-20043880  
  2. https://www.ams.usda.gov/sites/default/files/media/AMSProductLabelFactsheet.pdf 
  3. https://www.helpguide.org/articles/healthy-eating/organic-foods.htm
  4. https://www.ewg.org/foodnews/summary.php 
  5. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC7019963/ 
  6. https://ourworldindata.org/is-organic-agriculture-better-for-the-environment
  7. https://directives.sc.egov.usda.gov/OpenNonWebContent.aspx?content=37903.wba
  8. https://www.sciencenewsforstudents.org/article/organic-food-starts-prove-its-worth
  9. http://www.fao.org/organicag/oa-faq/oa-faq5/en/

Edited by preRD intern, Lauren Gatto.

Elizabeth Mann

Elizabeth Mann

Hello! My name is Elizabeth Mann! I have my Bachelor’s in Dietetics from Life University and I just completed my Master’s in Clinical Nutrition from the University of Nottingham (UK). I was also a collegiate athlete throughout undergraduate and graduate school. I am in the process of applying for the dietetic internship, but until then I am working as a virtual intern for My Sports Dietitian and as a dietetic technician for Monte Nido. The areas of dietetics I am most interested in are sports nutrition, eating disorder treatment, and gastrointestinal health. My long-term goal is to have my own private practice. Feel free to connect with me at liz_124@sbcglobal.net!