What Is Organic Food, and Is It More Nutritious Than Non-Organic Food?6 min read
Organic foods have grown increasingly popular over the last 2 decades. In fact, U.S. consumers spent $56 billion on organic produce in 2020 (1).
This number increased by nearly 13% from 2019, so their popularity does not seem to be slowing down (2).
Some people think organic food is safer, healthier, and tastier than conventionally grown food (3).
Others say it’s better for the environment and the well-being of animals.
This article compares organic and non-organic foods, including their nutrient content and effects on human health.
The term “organic” refers to how certain foods are produced. Organic foods have been grown or farmed without the use of:
In order to be labelled organic, a food product must be free of artificial food additives. This includes artificial sweeteners, preservatives, coloring, flavoring, and monosodium glutamate (MSG).
Organically grown crops tend to use natural fertilizers like manure to improve plant growth. Animals raised organically are not given antibiotics or hormones.
Organic farming tends to improve soil quality and the conservation of groundwater. It also reduces pollution and may be better for the environment.
The most commonly purchased organic foods are fruits, vegetables, grains, dairy products and meat. Processed organic products are also available, such as sodas, cookies, and meat substitutes.
Organic foods are produced through farming practices that only use natural substances. This means avoiding all artificial chemicals, hormones, antibiotics, and GMOs.
Studies comparing the nutrient content of organic and non-organic foods have had mixed results.
This is most likely due to natural variation in food handling and production. However, evidence does suggest that foods grown organically may be more nutritious.
Organically grown crops have more antioxidants and vitamins
Several older studies have found that organic foods generally contain higher levels of antioxidants and certain micronutrients, such as vitamin C, zinc, and iron (4,
In fact, antioxidant levels can be up to 69% higher in these foods (
A 2003 study found that organically grown berries and corn contained 58% more antioxidants and up to 52% higher amounts of vitamin C (
What’s more, one study reported that replacing regular fruit, vegetables and cereals with organic versions could provide extra antioxidants in your diet. This was comparable to eating 1–2 extra portions of fruit and vegetables daily (
Organic plants do not rely on chemical pesticide sprays to protect themselves. Instead, they produce more of their own protective compounds, namely antioxidants.
This may partly explain the higher levels of antioxidants in these plants.
Nitrate levels are generally lower
Organically grown crops have also been shown to have lower levels of nitrate. In fact, studies have shown that nitrate levels are 30% lower in these crops (
High nitrate levels are associated with an increased risk of certain types of cancer (
They’re also associated with a condition called methemoglobinemia, a disease in infants that affects the body’s ability to carry oxygen (11, 12).
Organic dairy and meat may have a more favorable fatty acid profile
Organic milk and dairy products may contain higher levels of omega-3 fatty acids and slightly higher amounts of iron, vitamin E, and some carotenoids (
However, organic milk may contain less selenium and iodine than non-organic milk. These are two minerals that are essential for health (
A review of 67 studies found that organic meat contained higher levels of omega-3 fatty acids and slightly lower levels of saturated fats than conventional meat (
A higher intake of omega-3 fatty acids has been associated with many health benefits, including a reduced risk of heart disease.
However, several other studies found no differences.
While several studies find that organic foods can have significant positive outcomes, others have found insufficient evidence to recommend organic over conventional (
An observational study comparing the nutrient intakes of nearly 4,000 adults consuming either organic or conventional vegetables found conflicting results.
Although a slightly higher intake of certain nutrients was seen in the organic group, this was most likely due to higher overall vegetable consumption (
A review of 35 studies found some positive outcomes associated with organic food but couldn’t draw any definitive conclusion (
Another review of 233 studies found a lack of strong evidence to conclude that organic foods are more nutritious than regular foods (
Nevertheless, it is important to remember that these studies vary quite widely in their results.
This is because the nutrient content of food depends on many factors, such as soil quality, weather conditions, and when the crops are harvested.
The composition of dairy products and meat can be affected by differences in animal genetics and animal breed, what the animals eat, the time of year, and the type of farm.
The natural variations in the production and handling of foods make comparisons difficult. That’s why the results of these studies aren’t conclusive.
Organically grown crops may have less nitrate and more of certain vitamins, minerals, and antioxidants. Organic dairy products and meat may have more omega-3 fatty acids. However, the evidence is mixed.
Many people choose to buy organic food in order to avoid artificial chemicals.
Evidence suggests that consuming these foods may reduce your exposure to pesticide residues and antibiotic-resistant bacteria (
One study found that levels of cadmium, an extremely toxic metal, were 48% lower in organic produce. In addition, pesticide residues were four times more likely to be found in non-organic crops (
It is important to note that the higher levels of cadmium and pesticide residue in conventionally grown produce were still well below safety limits (
However, some experts worry that cadmium can accumulate over time in the body, potentially causing harm. Washing, scrubbing, peeling, and cooking food can reduce these chemicals, although it doesn’t always remove them completely (22,
Nevertheless, evidence suggests that the risk of exposure to pesticide residue in foods is small and unlikely to cause harm (
Choosing organic foods may reduce your exposure to toxins, pesticide residues, and antibiotic-resistant bacteria. However, the levels of toxins in regular produce are generally well below the safety limits.
There is some evidence suggesting that organic foods have health benefits.
For example, several lab studies found that their higher antioxidant content helped protect cells from damage. And animal studies show that organic diets may benefit growth, reproduction, and the immune system (
One study also reported that chickens fed an organic diet showed reduced weight gain and had stronger immune systems (
Older observational studies suggest that organic foods may lower risk of allergies and eczema in children and infants. (
A large 2014 observational study of 623,080 women found no difference in cancer risk between people who never ate organic food and those who ate it regularly (
Unfortunately, there’s simply not enough strong evidence available to confirm that organic foods benefit human health more than conventional foods.
More high quality human studies are needed.
There is not enough strong evidence available to prove that eating organic provides health benefits over eating regular foods.
Just because a product is labeled “organic,” it doesn’t mean that it is nutrient dense.
Some of these products are still highly processed foods high in calories, added sugar, salt, and added fats.
For example, items such as organic cookies, chips, sodas, and ice cream should be consumed in moderation. Despite being organic, these products may still be low in nutrients.
When making the choice of what to eat, it may be more beneficial to choose based on your dietary needs and the vitamins and minerals contained in the food, rather than on the basis of organic versus conventional.
Highly processed organic food can still be low in nutrients and high in added fat, sugar, and calories.
The United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) has set up an organic certification program. This means any farmer or food producer selling organic food must meet strict government standards.
If you decide to choose organic, it’s important to look for the USDA organic seal.
Also, watch for these statements on food labels, so you can identify food that is truly organically grown:
- 100% organic. This product is made entirely from organic ingredients.
- Organic. At least 95% of the ingredients in this product are organic.
- Made with organic ingredients. At least 70% of the ingredients are organic.
If a product contains less than 70% organic ingredients, it cannot be labeled organic or use the USDA seal. Similar standards are enforced in Europe, Canada, and Australia. Each country or continent has its own seal to help consumers identify organic food.
To identify organic food, look for the appropriate seal or a statement like one of the three examples above.
The evidence is mixed on whether organic foods contain more antioxidants and nutrients than conventionally grown food.
Consuming organic food may reduce your exposure to artificial chemicals, added hormones, and antibiotic-resistant bacteria.
However, it can cost more and may not be accessible to everyone. Additionally, it’s not clear if going organic has additional health benefits.
Whether to buy organic is a choice you should make based on your personal preferences.