According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), organic food is one of the fastest growing segments of American Agriculture, up nearly 300 percent from 2002. So is it safe to say that consumers are buying organic because they believe it is healthier and safer than conventional? And if so, are they correct?

What is organic?

The term organic is defined and regulated by the National Organic Program (NOP) of the USDA. For a food to be classified as organic, it must first obtain USDA organic certification from a government-approved certifier, which means that the farm meets all USDA organic regulations. These include that the organic food is produced without the use of synthetic pesticides, fertilizers made with synthetic ingredients, sewage sludge, antibiotics, growth hormones, genetic engineering, or irradiation. Organic farmers must maintain or enhance soil and water quality, while conserving wetlands, woodlands, and wildlife. 

Labelling: What’s in a Name

The USDA has four organic categories and organic foods are labeled in one of these four ways:  

  • 100 percent organic: Can be used to label any product that contains 100 percent organic ingredients
  • Organic: can be used to label anything that contains a minimum of 95 percent organic ingredients.
  • Made with organic ingredients: 70 to 90 percent of the product is organic. In this case, the USDA logo cannot be used.
  • Organic ingredients listed: the food contains less than 70 percent organic ingredients. Organic may only be used in the ingredients list to describe the specific certified organic ingredients.
  • Why do people go organic?

People buy organic for two main reasons. First, there is a belief that organic foods contain a higher nutrient content than conventional farming, and second, consumers want to avoid chemical exposure, as there is acceptance that eating organic will lower dietary pesticide exposure.

When it comes to bread, these tenets of organic farming still apply. The benefit to buying and consuming organic bread is the same as with fruits and vegetables. Often, buying organic is part of a lifestyle. You have the peace of mind that comes from recognizing that each ingredient from the wheat to the milk was responsibly farmed. You are supporting farmers who spend the extra time and money that it takes to cultivate plants that naturally repel pests.

Is Organic Safer?

Even organic is not pesticide free. In tests, 1 in 10 crop samples had pesticides due to multiple reasons ranging from cross contamination from other fields or what was referred to as bad practice. Although farmers who use organic production don’t use conventional methods to fertilize and control weeds, they can use natural fertilizers, considered biologically safe, to feed soil and plants and may use crop rotation or mulch to manage weeds.

Whether or not you choose to invest in organic, you can do a few things to reduce the pesticide residues on your food:

  • Rubbing under running water removes 80% of the pesticide residues. Produce washes tested were not as effective as good old tap water.
  • Wash inedible skins, such as watermelon and remove outer leaves of leafy vegetables, such as lettuce.

Keep in mind this has nothing to do with and does not reduce the risk of getting sick from food poisoning due to poor food sanitation. An example of this is salmonella from cross contamination with chicken. No matter if organic or not, food safety always applies.

Not all organics are healthy. Organic junk food is still junk food.

Organic junk food is still junk food. People surveyed thought that if they ate an organic meal on a given day it would be ok to skip the gym afterwards. Not so. Pesticide-free licorice or potato chips do not contain fewer calories than non-organic ones nor are they nutritionally superior. So continue to opt for whole grains and other nutrient-rich foods, whether or not you’re buying organic.

Bottom line

Whether or not you go organic is a personal choice and you really have to do your own research to decide what’s best for you and your family. However, the lifestyle we lead and what we eat matters more than whether or not it is organic. There are tremendous benefits from eating conventional fruits, vegetables, and whole grains that far outweigh pesticide residue dangers. If you can choose organic, even better, but don’t let fear of pesticides scare you away from health foods. 

Lela Iliopoulos is a Registered Dietitian and Certified Diabetes Educator and an expert in nutrition therapy, health promotion, and education. She is passionate about impacting nutritional health through the practical application of science-based information