In 2020, the organic food industry reached $61.9 billion in sales as people turned to healthier food options.¹ Organic foods cost between 7% and 82% more than conventional foods, and with the cost of groceries rising, you may wonder if it’s worth the splurge.² While the high price point may make it easy to justify reaching for non-organic produce, you might want to think twice: the benefits of organic food go beyond your health.
If you’re skeptical, it may be better to think of organic food as the product of a very rigorous and controlled process that protects the environment and animals used to produce it. Instead of being simply trendy and overpriced, organic food represents an effort to change how we grow, raise, and eat food for the better. We’ll break down the differences between organic and conventional foods, what they can do for our health, and what to prioritize for your diet and budget.
Organic food is produced without harmful agriculture and livestock practices that can negatively impact your health, animals, and the environment. The USDA has strict requirements for how organic foods are grown and raised, including an animal’s diet and the types of fertilizer that can be used on growing crops. We’ve outlined some of these regulations below.³
Ionizing radiation, sewage sludge, and genetic engineering are prohibited when growing organic produce, and synthetic pesticides and fertilizers are not permitted. The land must be free of prohibited substances for three years before farmers can use it to grow organic crops. Seeds used for planting must be organic and non-GMO.
Farmers must feed animals raised for consumption a 100% organic diet. Any animal given prohibited medication, such as antibiotics and hormones, cannot be labeled as organic. All livestock and poultry must have year-round access to the outdoors unless there is a safety concern (such as extreme temperatures or flooding).
Certain organic foods may contain more nutritional value than conventionally produced foods, but experts agree that the difference is minimal.⁴ ⁵ The real benefits lie in what it excludes.
Organic farming positively impacts the land, soil, and surrounding ecosystems.⁶ Because of the lack of pesticides, sewage sludge, and other synthetic fertilizers, there is no harmful runoff polluting and contaminating nearby water sources. Through the use of natural fertilizers such as compost and manure, the carbon dioxide in the soil is retained instead of being released into the atmosphere, which helps the fight against climate change.⁷
Organic farming also allows local ecosystems, such as that of the all-important honeybees, to remain healthy and thriving. Persistent pesticides are extremely toxic to bees and a significant contributor to colony collapse disorder, which killed 40% of U.S. honeybee colonies in 2019 alone.⁸ ⁹ ¹⁰
The nutritional differences between organic and conventional foods are minimal. Despite this, studies have found that organic fruit, vegetables, and grains are higher in antioxidants, omega-3 fatty acids, and micronutrients such as iron and zinc than their non-organic counterparts.⁴
More importantly, because organic foods are grown without exposure to harmful pesticides, antibiotics, and hormones, they are generally safer to consume, and some find they taste better than conventionally grown produce. More research still needs to be done to conclusively state whether hormones in meat and dairy can cause health problems. Still, researchers have found direct links between exposure to pesticides and antibiotics through food to certain health conditions.¹¹ ¹²
Conventionally grown food is often produced with persistent, stable pesticides that can go longer without breaking down. Pesticides can include a cocktail of herbicides, fungicides, and insecticides that are sprayed on crops to kill off weeds, fungi, and pests. Residue from these pesticides often remains on produce such as leafy greens, apples, and tomatoes even after it hits grocery store shelves. Persistent pesticides can build up in your system if consumed regularly, and research has linked them to health conditions such as:¹³ ¹⁴
They can also contribute to environmental problems like contamination and pollution, and they've shown effects on the microbiome of animals.¹⁵
Pregnant people, children, the elderly, and immunocompromised individuals are most at risk for health problems from pesticides.¹⁶ ¹⁷ Switching to organic food may reduce this exposure.
Conventionally raised dairy cows are often given hormones (rBGH or rBST) to increase their milk yield, while other hormones such as estrogens and androgens are given to livestock to make them bigger — to increase our food supply with fewer resources.¹⁸ ¹⁹ ²⁰ Unfortunately, many health concerns are associated with the use of hormones in livestock. Cows that are given rBGH or rBST often develop udder infections called mastitis; artificial hormones can also increase their risk of infertility by 40% and their risk of lameness by 55%.²¹
Although the FDA claims that the levels of hormones in beef and milk are safe for human consumption, studies conducted by foreign nations and by independent organizations yielded concerning results. A narrative review published in The Iranian Journal of Public Health found that consuming dairy products from cows given rBGH or rBST may lead to an increased risk of breast, prostate, and endometrial tumors.¹² Because organic milk and meat are produced without hormones, it is a more cautious choice. However, more research is needed to conclusively state whether hormones in dairy and meat cause health problems in humans.
Antibiotics are given to livestock as a preventative measure to reduce the risk of infection in crowded, filthy living conditions, whether the animals are sick or not. Because 80% of antibiotics purchased in the United States are used on livestock, there is concern among health professionals about the overuse of these life-saving drugs.²² Antibiotic-resistant bacteria can develop in animals who receive too many antibiotics, particularly when used as a preventative. This drug-resistant bacteria can continue to develop in the animal’s body, transfer to humans upon consumption, and cause severe illnesses. Some examples of antibiotic-resistant sicknesses and bacteria from meat include:²³ ²⁴ ²⁵
Organic farmers are prohibited from using antibiotics on their livestock unless there is an actual illness or emergency that requires it. Instead, they utilize safer preventative measures such as vaccines, higher-quality feed, and healthier living conditions.²⁶ If an organic farmer gives antibiotics to any of their livestock, that specific animal is removed from the herd and loses its organic label.²⁷ Opting for organic meat means you’re less likely to be exposed to antibiotic-resistant bacteria or the unnecessary antibiotics that can cause them.²⁸
Choosing organic foods means eating something that’s better for you, the environment, and the animal it came from, but understanding the benefits of organic food is only the first step. Incorporating organic food into your diet may seem easy, but food labels don’t always tell the whole story, no matter how healthy they sound.
Food labels can be confusing or, in some cases, misleading. Get to know your food better by understanding what a label actually discloses. If a food is organic or contains organic ingredients, you’ll see one of the following labels:²⁹
Seeing this seal certifies that 100% of the product is made with organic ingredients. You can see this label on organic produce, meat, dairy, eggs, and prepackaged foods.
Seeing this label certifies that at least 95% of the product is made with organic ingredients, with any non-organic additions coming from a USDA-approved list of ingredients. These products can qualify for a USDA Organic seal.
If you see this label on a food product, you can be sure it contains at least 70% certified organic ingredients. However, it does not qualify for a USDA Organic seal.
This phrase means that the product contains less than 70% certified organic ingredients and does not qualify for any USDA Organic seals.
If you don’t see an organic seal, the products do not fit the strict regulations laid out for organic farming (or the farm hasn’t applied to be certified organic). However, organic seals aren’t the only labels you can find on a package. Other terms, like “natural” or “cage-free,” may sound healthy, but other harmful agricultural and livestock practices may have been used. These other nutrition labels include:
This labeling means that there are no artificial colors, preservatives, or flavors, but they may contain GMO ingredients or hormones.⁴ ³⁰ ³¹
A product with this label means that no genetically modified ingredients were used. It’s still possible that other harmful practices were utilized, such as sewage sludge or synthetic fertilizers.⁴
This label means that the USDA has documentation from the producers that no hormones were used on the animal before slaughter. However, due to the lack of inspections on the farm, there is no way to verify it.³¹
This term only applies to fowl (chickens and turkeys) and means very little in practice. All it states is that the animals did not live in a cage, which is generally small enough to constrict movement. Cage-free doesn’t apply to chickens and turkeys raised for slaughter, as they are never caged.³¹
Like cage-free, this refers only to chickens and turkeys and does not specify how long the animals were allowed outside nor the quality or size of the outdoor space. Additionally, there’s no way to verify the product's claims as there are no regular inspections for this.³¹
To learn more about food labeling, visit EWG’s meat and dairy label decoder.
Just because a product has an organic seal or is made with organic ingredients doesn’t mean it’s the healthiest choice. Be sure to look at the nutrition facts for prepackaged food to examine the actual nutritional value of the food itself. For example, if an organic protein bar has more than 20% of the Daily Value (DV) of added sugar or is high in saturated fats, it might not be the best choice for a snack, no matter how organic it is.
Maximize the nutritional value of your produce, whether organic or conventional, by choosing fruits and vegetables that are in season. In-season produce is the freshest, with most of its nutrients intact. Out-of-season produce often sits for long periods in cold storage and loses much of its nutritional value.³² Purchasing and eating produce that’s in season also supports local farmers. Frozen fruits and vegetables are often harvested while in season and maintain much of their nutritional value, making them a good option for people with a limited budget.³³
Finally, whether you choose organic or conventional, always wash your produce thoroughly under running water before consuming it to ensure cleanliness and reduce your pesticide exposure.³⁴
Unfortunately, organic food isn’t accessible to everyone. Depending on where you live, availability and cost may make it difficult to make a complete switch. The following list is Environmental Working Group’s (EWG) 2023’s “Dirty Dozen,” or the 12 most contaminated foods.³⁵ Switching to organic versions of these foods can reduce your exposure to harmful pesticides.
EWG’s 2023 “Clean 15” list makes healthier choices easy without shelling out the cash for a 100% organic diet.³⁶ The following foods had the lowest pesticide residue according to lab tests, meaning they are the most likely to be safe to buy non-organic.
Another way to avoid exposure to pesticides (synthetic or natural) is to grow produce yourself. It may be time-consuming initially, but the benefits are well worth the trouble. While it would be almost impossible for a backyard gardener to grow fruits and vegetables that meet the USDA’s standards for organic, successfully growing your own food at home can provide the following benefits:³⁷
If you’d like to grow your own pesticide-free produce, here are some steps to help you get started:³⁷ ³⁸
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