Organic 101

  • Eating habits play a larger role in health than whether a food is produced organically or by conventional food production methods.
  • “Healthy soils equals healthy food equals healthy people” is fundamental to “going organic” but food quality grown by organic and conventional methods is the subject of much controversy.
  • Foods grown by organic farming may contain statistically higher levels of vitamins, minerals, and amino acids and less pesticide and heavy metals (cadmium), lower nitrate-nitrogen ratio and possibly more flavor (if handled properly).

Big business

“Organic” is a big business and is growing fast: between 1997 and 2011, U.S. sales of organic foods increased from $3.6 billion to $24.4 billion. It is apparent that many “health conscious” consumers will pay a premium for organic foods and in fact, organic foods are about twice as expensive as their conventionally grown counterparts. Increased public concerns about the negative health and environmental impact of pesticides, growth regulators and mineral fertilizers used in crop production have undoubtedly been a major reason for the increase in consumer demand for organic foods.

The extra cost may contribute to the perception that organic foods are better for health. Foods grown by organic farming may contain statistically higher levels of vitamins, minerals, and amino acids and less pesticide and heavy metals (cadmium) but the overall health benefits are not that obvious.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) has established an organic certification program that requires all organic foods to meet strict government standards and any product labeled as organic must be USDA certified (producers who sell less than $5,000 a year in organic foods are exempt from this certification but still required to follow the USDA’s standards for organic foods). Organic producers rely on natural substances and physical, mechanical, or biologically based farming methods to the fullest extent possible.

Defining organic

Produce can be called organic if it’s certified to have grown on soil that had no prohibited substances applied for three years prior to harvest. The USDA Organic label, means it’s produced and processed according to the USDA standards. Other healthy halo labels such as “natural” and “all natural,” “free-range” or “hormone-free” must be truthful, but should not to be confused with the term “organic.” Only foods that are grown and processed according to USDA organic standards can be labeled organic. Products certified 95% or more organic may display this USDA seal and foods that have more than one ingredient (like breakfast cereal) can for example, use the USDA organic seal plus the following wording, depending on the number of organic ingredients:

  • 100% organic which means completely organic or made of all organic ingredients.
  • Organic which means at least 95% organic.
  • Foods that contain at least 70% organic ingredients may say “made with organic ingredients” on the label, but may not use the seal.
  • Foods containing less than 70% organic ingredients can’t use the seal or the word “organic” on their product labels.

Better health?

The available scientific studies are conflicting and any personal health benefits derived by eating organic unfortunately are still unclear -at least based on the short term studies. “Plants can’t tell the difference between organic and chemical fertilizers” is often quoted. The nutritional quality of organic produce in comparison to conventional produce are inconclusive.  Researchers from Stanford’s Center for Health Policy in a recent comprehensive analysis  of multiple studies (a meta-analysis) comparing organic and conventional foods did not find strong evidence that organic foods are more nutritious or carry fewer health risks than conventional alternatives, although consumption of organic foods can reduce the risk of pesticide exposure (pesticide levels of all foods generally fell within the allowable safety limits) and do reduce antibiotic-resistant bacteria. A recent, large prospective study found little or no decrease in the incidence of cancer associated with the consumption of organic food, except possibly for non-Hodgkin lymphoma.


Some research does support statistically important differences in nutritional quality with organic food,  while other studies do not; nevertheless, the cumulative evidence indicates that organic foods have a variety of some healthful attributes that should over the long term make them more healthy. Additionally, organic farming is considered an obviously better alternative to intensive industrial agriculture given its lower environmental footprint; we applaud the use of more eco-friendly organic farming techniques that conserve limited resources. Health benefits are certainly possible and are anticipated with further study.

Smith-Spangler C, et al. Are Organic Foods Safer or Healthier Than Conventional Alternatives?: A Systematic Review. Ann Intern Med. 2012;157:348-366.

Bradbury K.E., et al. Organic food consumption and the incidence of cancer in a large prospective study of women in the United Kingdom. Br. J. Cancer. 2014;110:2321–2326).