Organic foods: Are they safer? More nutritious?

Discover the difference between organic foods and their traditionally grown counterparts when it comes to nutrition, safety and price.

By Mayo Clinic Staff

Once found only in health food stores, organic food is now a common feature at most grocery stores. And that's made a bit of a problem in the produce aisle.

For example, you can pick an apple grown with usual (conventional) methods. Or you can pick one that's organic. Both apples are firm, shiny and red. They both provide vitamins and fiber. And neither apple has fat, salt or cholesterol. Which should you choose? Get the facts before you shop.

What is organic farming?

The word "organic" means the way farmers grow and process farming (agricultural) products. These products include fruits, vegetables, grains, dairy products such as milk and cheese, and meat. Organic farming practices are designed to meet the following goals:

  • Improve soil and water quality
  • Cut pollution
  • Provide safe, healthy places for farm animals (livestock) to live
  • Enable natural farm animals' behavior
  • Promote a self-sustaining cycle of resources on a farm

Materials or methods not allowed in organic farming include:

  • Artificial (synthetic) fertilizers to add nutrients to the soil
  • Sewage sludge as fertilizer
  • Most synthetic pesticides for pest control
  • Using radiation (irradiation) to preserve food or to get rid of disease or pests
  • Using genetic technology to change the genetic makeup (genetic engineering) of crops, which can improve disease or pest resistance, or to improve crop harvests
  • Antibiotics or growth hormones for farm animals (livestock)

Organic crop farming materials or practices may include:

  • Plant waste left on fields (green manure), farm animals' manure or compost to improve soil quality
  • Plant rotation to keep soil quality and to stop cycles of pests or disease
  • Cover crops that prevent wearing away of soil (erosion) when sections of land aren't in use and to plow into soil for improving soil quality
  • Mulch to control weeds
  • Insects or insect traps to control pests
  • Certain natural pesticides and a few synthetic pesticides approved for organic farming, used rarely and only as a last choice and coordinated with a USDA organic certifying agent

Organic farming practices for farm animals (livestock) include:

  • Healthy living conditions and access to the outdoors
  • Pasture feeding for at least 30% of farm animals' nutritional needs during grazing season
  • Organic food for animals
  • Shots to protect against disease (vaccinations)

Organic or not? Check the label

The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) has set up an organic certification program that requires all organic food to meet strict government standards. These standards control how such food is grown, handled and processed.

Any product labeled as organic on the product description or packaging must be USDA certified. If it's certified, the producer may also use an official USDA Organic seal.

The USDA says producers who sell less than $5,000 a year in organic food don't need to be certified. These producers must follow the guidelines for organic food production. But they don't need to go through the certification process. They can label their products as organic. But they can't use the official USDA Organic seal.

USDA organic seal

Products certified 95 percent or more organic may display this USDA seal.

The USDA guidelines describe organic foods on product labels as:

  • 100% organic. This label is used on certified organic fruits, vegetables, eggs, meat or other foods that have one ingredient. It may also be used on food items with many ingredients if all the items are certified organic, except for salt and water. These may have a USDA seal.
  • Organic. If a food with many ingredients is labeled organic, at least 95% of the ingredients are certified organic, except for salt and water. The items that aren't organic must be from a USDA list of approved additional ingredients. These also may have a USDA seal.
  • Made with organic. If a product with many ingredients has at least 70% certified organic ingredients, it may have a "made with organic" ingredients label. For example, a breakfast cereal might be labeled "made with organic oats." The ingredient list must show what items are organic. These products can't carry a USDA seal.
  • Organic ingredients. If a product has some organic ingredients but less than 70% of the ingredients are certified organic , the product can't be labeled as organic. It also can't carry a USDA seal. The ingredient list can show which ingredients are organic.

Does 'organic' mean the same thing as 'natural'?

No, "natural" and "organic" are different. Usually, "natural" on a food label means that the product has no artificial colors, flavors or preservatives. "Natural" on a label doesn't have to do with the methods or materials used to grow the food ingredients.

Also be careful not to mix up other common food labels with organic labels. For example, certified organic beef guidelines include pasture access during at least 120 days of grazing season and no growth hormones. But the labels "free-range" or "hormone-free" don't mean a farmer followed all guidelines for organic certification.

Organic food: Is it safer or more nutritious?

Some data shows possible health benefits of organic foods when compared with foods grown using the usual (conventional) process. These studies have shown differences in the food. But there is limited information to prove how these differences can give potential overall health benefits.

Potential benefits include the following:

  • Nutrients. Studies have shown small to moderate increases in some nutrients in organic produce. Organic produce may have more of certain antioxidants and types of flavonoids, which have antioxidant properties.
  • Omega-3 fatty acids. The feeding requirements for organic farm animals (livestock) usually cause higher levels of omega-3 fatty acids. These include feeding cattle grass and alfalfa. Omega-3 fatty acids — a kind of fat — are more heart healthy than other fats. These higher omega-3 fatty acids are found in organic meats, dairy and eggs.
  • Toxic metal. Cadmium is a toxic chemical naturally found in soils and absorbed by plants. Studies have shown much lower cadmium levels in organic grains, but not fruits and vegetables, when compared with crops grown using usual (conventional) methods. The lower cadmium levels in organic grains may be related to the ban on synthetic fertilizers in organic farming.
  • Pesticide residue. Compared with produce grown using usual (conventional) methods, organically grown produce has lower levels of pesticide residue. The safety rules for the highest levels of residue allowed on conventional produce have changed. In many cases, the levels have been lowered. Organic produce may have residue because of pesticides approved for organic farming or because of airborne pesticides from conventional farms.
  • Bacteria. Meats produced using usual (conventional) methods may have higher amounts of dangerous types of bacteria that may not be able to be treated with antibiotics. The overall risk of contamination of organic foods with bacteria is the same as conventional foods.

Are there downsides to buying organic?

One common concern with organic food is cost. Organic foods often cost more than similar foods grown using usual (conventional) methods. Higher prices are due, in part, to more costly ways of farming.

Food safety tips

Whether you go totally organic or choose to mix conventional and organic foods, keep these tips in mind:

  • Choose a variety of foods from a mix of sources. You'll get a better variety of nutrients and lower your chance of exposure to a single pesticide.
  • Buy fruits and vegetables in season when you can. To get the freshest produce, ask your grocer what is in season. Or buy food from your local farmers market.
  • Read food labels carefully. Just because a product says it's organic or has organic ingredients doesn't mean it's a healthier choice. Some organic products may still be high in sugar, salt, fat or calories.
  • Wash and scrub fresh fruits and vegetables well under running water. Washing helps remove dirt, germs and chemical traces from fruit and vegetable surfaces. But you can't remove all pesticide traces by washing. Throwing away the outer leaves of leafy vegetables can lessen contaminants. Peeling fruits and vegetables can remove contaminants but may also cut nutrients.

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April 22, 2022 See more In-depth