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Last Updated on December 3, 2020

The market for organic food has increased steadily – from $15.2M in 1999 to $95M in 2018! [1] However, few things are as confusing as the food market – is organic really better than non-organic? Are there any non-organic foods you can buy while keeping a clean conscience? And what about your health?

In this article, we've investigated the ins and outs of organic – or rather, non-organic – foods for you. Hint: there are things you can get away with buying! Let's dive in!

Difference

Organic implies that the foods have been grown without artificial chemicals, hormones, antibiotics, or genetically modified organisms. To be labeled organic, the food also has to be free from artificial additives.

When it comes to plants and crops, natural farming methods and fertilizers are used – such as manure. Animals that are raised for meat production are not fed with antibiotics and hormones.

Certified Organic

To be certified organic in the US, the foods must be approved by the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) and meet their strict guidelines. There are four different levels of organic certification that a product can earn:

  • 100% Organic: Mostly used for single-ingredient foods like meat and vegetables. The label can also be used for multi-ingredient foods if all the ingredients are certified organic (salt and water are exempt from this requirement).
  • Organic: Used for foods that contain at least 95% organic ingredients
  • Made with Organic: Applied to foods that use at least 70% organic ingredients. While the first two categories can carry a USDA seal, Made with Organic may not.
  • Organic ingredients: Used for individual ingredients in the ingredients list for foods that contain less than 70% organic ingredients, and thus aren't certified organic.

Dangers of Non-Organic Foods

Pesticides from non-organic food can have a damaging impact on humans. A study showed that pesticides cause 3 million cases of pesticide poisoning per year and an estimated 220,000 deaths – primarily in developing countries. Some diseases linked to pesticides are asthma, hypersensitivity, different types of cancer, hormone disruptions, and fertility issues. [2] It is unknown how many of the cases of the above-mentioned diseases are linked to consumption of non-organic food.

Dirty Dozen

Though it might be impossible to avoid chemicals in food to 100%, it's important to limit your intake of contaminated food. The Environmental Working Group (EWG) has developed a list called the Dirty Dozen™, helping consumers avoid foods containing the highest levels of pesticides. [3]

These are the foods that are recommended to buy organic whenever possible:

  • Apples
  • Strawberries
  • Grapes
  • Celery
  • Peaches
  • Spinach
  • Sweet bell peppers
  • Imported nectarines
  • Cucumbers
  • Cherry tomatoes
  • Imported snap peas
  • Potatoes

Some interesting findings by EWG is that – among others – 100% of the tested imported nectarines and 99% of imported apples were contaminated with pesticide residues.

Use organic food delivery to avoid going to the grocery store.

Clean Fifteen: These are the Foods You Can Get Away With!

Conversely, EWG also created a list of the fruits and vegetables that are least likely to contain pesticide residues, and thus can be considered the safest to consume in non-organic form:

  • Avocados
  • Sweet corn
  • Pineapples
  • Cabbage
  • Frozen sweet peas
  • Onions
  • Asparagus
  • Mangoes
  • Papayas
  • Kiwis
  • Eggplant
  • Grapefruit
  • Cantaloupe
  • Cauliflower
  • Sweet potatoes

Is Organic Healthier?

Numerous studies have pointed to the benefits of organic food.

  • Nutrients. Studies have shown small to intermediate increases in certain types of nutrients – in particular, flavonoids which is a type of antioxidants slowing down the aging of cells and certain micronutrients, such as vitamin C, zinc, and iron. [4] [5]
  • Lower levels of nitrate: Organically grown produce has lower nitrate levels – up to 30% lower than in non-organic food! [6] This is of interest since high levels of nitrate can be linked to cancer.
  • Omega-3 fatty acids: Omega-3 is a healthier fat seen in higher quantities in organic meat, dairy, and eggs. This is because of the feeding requirements for animals on organic farms.
  • Omega-3 fatty acids: Omega-3 is a healthier fat seen in higher quantities in organic meat, dairy, and eggs. This is because of the feeding requirements for animals on organic farms.
  • Pesticide residue: Organic food has lower levels of detectable pesticide residue than non-organic foods. However, there are still some pesticides that are approved for organic farming. This, together with airborne pesticides from adjacent conventional farms, lead to organic foods still having a pesticide level above zero.
  • Bacteria: Non-organic meats may have a higher occurrence of antibiotic-resistant bacteria. That said, the overall risk of bacterial contamination in meats does not depend on whether it's organic or not.

Organic produce has, on average, 30% lower pesticide residues than conventional foods. A review of scientific studies conducted by Annals of Internal Medicine showed that pesticide levels in organic and non-organic foods were within allowable safety limits. [7]

It’s still not clear, though, what that means to our health. "Just because these foods aren’t going over what they call an ‘acceptable limit’ doesn’t mean they’re safe for everyone," Dr. Michelle Hauser, a certified chef, nutrition educator, and clinical fellow in medicine at Harvard Medical School, says. "There haven’t been enough studies evaluating pesticide exposure to confirm the health effects, particularly in children and pregnant women", she adds.

Is Organic Better for the Environment?

Since organic produce uses no chemical fertilizers and only natural farming methods, it has a lower environmental impact than conventional food.

Is Organic Worth It?

So, what is there to say about the value of organic versus non-organic food?

Organic food may have a higher price tag than conventionally grown produce. However, considering its health benefits, it might be worth it. Conventional food contains higher levels of pesticide residue – the effects of which are still largely unknown. As this article shows, there are also higher levels of certain nutrients in organic foods than non-organic.

Conclusion

The question of organic versus non-organic foods is highly debated. There are numerous health benefits – and reduced risks – from choosing organic foods over non-organic whenever possible. The two most apparent benefits are reduced exposure to pesticides and antibiotic-resistant bacteria.

There are, however, foods you can get away with buying non-organic! Those are listed on the Clean Fifteen list composed by the EWG. The Clean Fifteen have shown to contain less pesticide residues.

That way, you can keep eating non-organic food from time to time with a clean conscience!

References

[1] https://www.statista.com/statistics/273090/worldwide-sales-of-organic-foods-since-1999 as seen on Sept 7, 2020

[2] P. Harsh Vardhan, S. Dheepak, P. T. Aditya,  S. Arul, Development of Automated Aerial Pesticide Sprayer, 2014

[3] https://www.ewg.org/foodnews/summary.php, as seen on Sept 10, 2020

[4] Baranski M, et al. Higher antioxidant and lower cadmium concentrations and lower incidence of pesticide residues in organically grown crops: A systematic literature review and meta-analyses. British Journal of Nutrition. 2014;112:794.

[5] K. Brandt et al, Agroecosystem Management and Nutritional Quality of Plant Foods: The Case of Organic Fruits and Vegetables, 2011

[6] M.Huberan et al, Organic food and impact on human health: Assessing the status quo and prospects of research, 2011

[7] C. Smith-Spangler, Are Organic Foods Safer or Healthier Than Conventional Alternatives? A Systematic Review, 2012

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Hi, I'm Paul. Welcome to my website! I, along with my cronies, are leveraging our years of working in the food industry to review meal and drink delivery services. We review. You eat happily ever after.

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