What About Organic Food? Is It Really Healthier?

Farmer 1914 Texas
Farm family, Littlefield, Texas, circa 1914 (Courtesy DeGolyer Library, Southern Methodist University)

If you could step inside a time machine and travel back to the beginning of the 20th century, you would find a vastly different America. At the turn of the century, the majority of Americans were farmers who grew crops and raised livestock without using toxic chemicals, growth hormones, antibiotics, or genetic modification. Back then, no one thought to ask “What about organic food?” because nearly all food was organically grown.

Today, the overwhelming majority of Americans are far removed from the sources of their food. For most of us, going to the supermarket or eating food prepared in a commercial kitchen is the closest we come to our food’s origin. Instead of growing our own food, we rely on government agencies to make sure our food is safe and wholesome.

But if government agencies are doing their jobs and ensuring that our food supply is safe and nutritious, why is there a continually rising demand for organic food products in the marketplace? And why are so many people willing to pay more for them? What are they getting for their money?

Organic Food Provides More Nutrients

Most conventional farming is now focused on mass production, out-of-season growing, and ways to create a longer shelf life. Maximum crop yields are their number-one concern.

Conventional, commercially-produced crops have been sprayed with synthetic chemicals such as fertilizers, pesticides and herbicides. Many of these conventionally grown crops are GE (genetically engineered), as well.

Big agribusiness farms tend to plant the same crops over and over in the same place, which depletes the soil of nutrients, leads to more chemical fertilizer use, and ultimately leads to more insect infestation and disease. Eventually, it can lead to considerable topsoil erosion, as well.

As you might suspect, food crops grown according to conventional, commercial farming methods are not able to take in as many vitamins and minerals from their nutrient-depleted soil.

Organic foods, on the other hand, are grown in nutrient-rich soil that has been responsibly and sustainably managed and nourished. As a result, organically grown fruits, vegetables and grains have been found to contain significantly more of several nutrients, according to a 2004 review of 41 published studies which appeared in the Journal of Alternative and Complementary Medicine.

cabbage patchThis study verified, for example, that five servings of conventionally grown vegetables did not provide an adequate daily allowance of vitamin C, but five servings of organic vegetables did. In fact, organically grown foods provided 21.1% more iron, 27% more vitamin C, 29.3% more magnesium, and 13.6% more phosphorus than their conventional counterparts.

A more recent 2014 meta-study published in the British Journal of Nutrition found similar results. This review of 343 published studies concluded that organic crops have higher concentrations of antioxidants, much lower concentrations of the toxic metal cadmium, and a much lower incidence of pesticide residues than non-organic crops.

Reduce Exposure to Toxic Chemicals

More than 600 active chemicals are now registered for agricultural use in America, and billions of pounds are used annually on commercially grown food.  (This equates to approximately 16 pounds of toxic chemicals per person every year.) The only way to avoid ingesting a poisonous chemical cocktail is to eat organically grown foods.

CropdustingIf you’re thinking that these chemicals are tightly regulated, consider this: 90% of the chemicals which are applied to our foods have been approved as safe without any testing for long-term health effects. Furthermore, only 1% of foods are tested by the FDA for pesticide residue. Even worse, the FDA almost never employs the special testing methods needed to identify the most dangerous and toxic pesticides. (Source)

Organophosphates (OP) are a class of commonly-used pesticides which are considered to be neurotoxins. A neurotoxin is a substance known to be damaging to brain and nerve cells. Originally, OPs were developed in World War I as toxic nerve agents. After the war ended, industry adapted them to kill pests on foods.  OP pesticides are linked to a number of detrimental health effects, particularly among agricultural workers who are regularly exposed to the chemicals.

Many agricultural chemicals are considered by the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to be potentially cancer-causing, as well.  Sixty percent of herbicides, 90% of fungicides and 30% of insecticides have been identified as probable carcinogens.

The news is good for consumers of organic produce, however. A recent study conducted by Boise State University’s School of Allied Health Sciences analyzed the dietary exposure of nearly 4,500 people to organophosphates (OPs), the most common insecticides used on conventionally grown produce. Results showed that those who reported eating organic produce had significantly lower OP pesticides in their system.

What the Organic Label Means

USDA organic logoFarmers who label a product as “100% Organic” must ensure that every ingredient in the product is Certified Organic. This assures the consumer that the product has been produced with:

  • NO toxic synthetic pesticides
  • NO glyphosate herbicides (aka “Roundup”)
  • NO residues of the neurotoxin Hexane
  • NO sewage sludge (used to “fertilize” conventionally grown crops; made up of human waste that contains endocrine disruptors and heavy metals)
  • NO growth-promoting hormones or antibiotics (shown to contribute to weight gain and antibiotic resistance)
  • NO Ractopamine drug residues (banned in 160 countries)
  • NO GMOs (Genetically Modified Organisms)
  • NO irradiation with nuclear waste or electron beams (shown to destroy vitamins and nutrients and produce cancer-causing chemicals such as benzene and formaldehyde)
  • NO artificial food additives

The USDA has defined four tiers of organic products, with 100% Organic being at the top level.  Because some ingredients needed for certain products are not yet available organically, the next two tiers—USDA Organic and Organic—require that only 95% of ingredients be Certified Organic with the remaining 5% coming from an approved list.

All of the top three certifications must be inspected by the USDA and can use the USDA seal.  The fourth certification is Made with Organic Ingredients, which requires that only 70% of ingredients be Certified Organic, and it cannot use the USDA seal.

Avoid Contaminated Animal Products

Conventional, factory-farmed meat and dairy are the foods which actually have the highest risk for being contaminated with harmful substances. While you might think that fruits, vegetables and grains would have the highest concentrations of pesticides, that is not the reality. Instead, a whopping 90% of the pesticides consumed by Americans come from the fat and tissue of meat and dairy products.

Factory farmed poultryPesticide intake comes mainly from meat, poultry, fish, eggs, and dairy products, according to the EPA, because these foods are all high on the food chain. To make matters worse, cows, chickens and pigs are now fed toxic and chemical-laden slaughterhouse waste. Animals on organic farms, however, are never fed animal parts, manure or blood, making organically raised meats a much safer option.

Choosing organic meat also lessens your exposure to synthetic hormones, antibiotics and drugs, which are routinely (and even recklessly) used in Confined Animal Feeding Operations (CAFOs). As of 2016, the FDA reports that approximately 80 percent of all antibiotics used in the United States are fed to farm animals.

Shop Smarter with “Dirty Dozen” and “Clean Fifteen” Lists

The Environmental Working Group publishes its “Dirty Dozen” and “Clean Fifteen” lists annually to inform concerned shoppers of the most and least pesticide-contaminated fruits and vegetables.

The 2017 Dirty Dozen + list below has 13 items listed—it was no longer possible to keep the list down to only twelve foods. The foods on the Dirty Dozen + list are the most likely to hold multiple pesticide residues and should always be purchased organic if you want to avoid them.

The fruits and vegetables on the Clean Fifteen list are the least likely to hold pesticide residues, consistently showing little or no contamination when tested. These are generally safe for shoppers to purchase when the organic version is unavailable or too expensive.

Dirty Dozen Plus                            Clean Fifteen

Organic Food Has Not Been Genetically Modified

It is estimated that Genetically Engineered (GE) ingredients and/or Genetically Modified Organisms (GMOs) are now found in 75% of all non-organic processed foods sold in the United States. GMOs are living organisms whose genetic material has been artificially manipulated in a laboratory through genetic engineering.

Most GMOs have been designed for the purpose of withstanding the direct application of herbicide and/or to produce their own insecticide internally. Despite the GMO developers’ promises, current GMO vs. non-GMO yield comparisons show that the GMO crops offer no advantages in terms of increased yield, drought tolerance, enhanced nutrition, or any other consumer benefit.

Are GMOs Safe?

In 2015, over 300 independent scientific researchers and scholars developed and signed a statement, based on published evidence, that the claim of “scientific consensus on GMOs” has been “falsely perpetuated.” They concluded that the safety of GMOs is “unknown” due to the complete absence of credible, independent long-term studies on the potential effects of eating GMO food. Nearly all of the research which is currently used to claim that GMOs are safe has been performed by the biotechnology companies themselves.

Independent research has linked GM crops to serious health problems. One problem inherent with genetic engineering is that the genetic engineering process creates new, foreign proteins, unrecognizable to the human body’s immune system. Since allergic reactions are typically brought on by proteins, GMOs can result in brand new allergens we’ve never known before. GM crops are also designed to survive the herbicide glyphosate (Roundup), so eating GMO foods increases our exposure to glyphosate. In animal studies, glyphosate has been linked to birth defects, reproductive damage, cancer, and endocrine disruption. Other research has linked GM crops to Alzheimer’s disease and diabetes.

GMOs Are Not Labelled in the U.S.

Sixty-four countries around the world now require that GMOs are labeled. And even though 93% of Americans polled in a 2015 ABC News survey believed genetically modified foods should be labeled, GMO labeling is still not required in the U.S. and Canada.

Non GMO Project logoNorth American consumers can make a more informed choice, however, by looking for products carrying the Non-GMO Project logo. This is a sign the product has been verified as containing no GM ingredients.

If you would like to read a comprehensive review of the available research on GMOs, the Institute for Responsible Technology has made their report GMO Myths and Truths freely available for download. Another well-documented and detailed book with a number of important insights on the subject of GMOs is Altered Genes, Twisted Truth: How the Venture to Genetically Engineer Our Food Has Subverted Science, Corrupted Government, and Systematically Deceived the Public, written by public interest attorney Steven M. Druker.

While the Non-GMO Project verification does not mean that a food has been produced according to organic standards, it is an important assurance for consumers who are not willing to play “genetic roulette” with their bodies. Buying food that is certified organic comes with an automatic assurance that the product has been produced without genetic engineering.

Need More Reasons to Go Organic?

Organic fresh fruit&veggies

If benefiting from more nutrients, lessening exposure to toxic chemicals, and avoiding foods that are actually “pesticide factories” are not enough reasons to eat organic food, there are many more. For one thing, organic farming is much more environmentally friendly and also helps reduce the pollution in our drinking water. Another benefit is the protection of wildlife which are harmed by exposure to pesticides.

Maybe you’ve wondered: “What about organic food and body pH levels?” Since organic vegetables and fruits have higher levels of vitamins and alkalizing minerals, they are more effective as alkaline-forming foods. And toxic chemicals such as glyphosate and organophosphates have an acidifying effect on the body, so that is one more reason to avoid exposure to them.

Many people (myself included) think that organic food simply tastes better! The growing demand for organically produced foods has made many of them more affordable, and this trend is continuing. Use the Dirty Dozen+ and Clean Fifteen lists to eat cleaner and make your diet the healthiest it can be.


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DISCLAIMER:  Nothing on this site or blog is intended to provide medical advice, diagnosis or treatment.

8 Replies to “What About Organic Food? Is It Really Healthier?”

  1. What a great review for organic foods! I do try to buy organic when I can. One curious debate is whether or not the organic farms are becoming contaminated from their neighbors who are not organic and are using pesticides. Do you feel that this is a real concern or that type of runoff isn’t a concern?

    1. I’m glad you found the review helpful. It has been an ongoing frustration for organic farmers (and consumers) for quite a while that agricultural chemicals from conventionally grown crops can find their way into organic crops via wind or groundwater. Because so much of our soil and water are now polluted with these chemicals, it is not reasonable to think that they would be 100% absent in organic foods. Certified organic foods, however, have been shown to have far fewer synthetic chemical residues than conventional produce. Buying organic as much as possible is the best way to tell food producers we don’t want to eat toxic chemicals any more.

  2. That was very informative and enlightening! Thanks for the article!
    I have read that the word ‘organic’ has been constantly used as a marketing term. It’s become hard to know whether what we are reading on food labels are actually true or not. And we know that organic food is relatively more expensive than conventional food.
    Again, thanks for the great post!

    1. I’m glad you found some good information here. There are a lot of “tricks” used by marketers to make food products seem more wholesome than they are, but the word “organic” and the USDA Organic logo should not be applied to any product unless it has met strict requirements in the production process. The word “natural,” however has been redefined to encompass almost anything, so when you see “natural” on a label, it is essentially meaningless. So far, organizations like the Organic Consumers Association have been pretty successful in keeping the meaning of “organic” from becoming diluted. Read more here if you want to check out what the OCA is doing:  https://www.organicconsumers.o

  3. What a great article! I try to buy organic but tend not to with strawberries due to the price but I will change that.. I’ve been trying to grow some of my own food and wonder if composting fruit/veg that is not organic would contaminate my home grown crop?

    1. I’m so happy you enjoyed the post. It’s very sad that those beautiful, inexpensive strawberries are so pesticide-laden. If I need strawberries in the winter months, I usually buy frozen organic, or once in a great while I just “suck it up” and buy an expensive quart of fresh organic berries. Your question about composting is a good one. This has been a topic of discussion for organic gardeners for several years now. Here’s what I found at this California Recycling website: “During the last several years, farmers and home gardeners in several states have reported damage to vegetable and flower crops after applying compost and mulch that contained persistent pesticide residues. Damage to non-target species has also resulted from application of manure, hay, and grass clippings that contained persistent carboxylic acid herbicides.” So, yes, those pesticides can remain in your compost 🙁

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