Is Organic Food Healthier? - Nemours Blog


Is Organic Food Healthier?

Is Organic Food Healthier?, Powered by Nemours Children's Health System

Let’s play a game. When I say “organic,” you say the first words that come to mind. Ready…Organic!

Okay, let’s check your answers. Did you say something like healthy, nutritious, clean, natural, expensive, and/or safe? These are common words used when we talk about organic versus non-organic foods. But is this always the case? Is all organic food healthier, cleaner, more expensive and safe? Before we fully answer this question (spoiler alert: the short answer is no), let’s breakdown what it means when food is “organic.”

What is Organic Food?

The United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) certifies and labels certain foods as organic if they are produced “using methods that preserve the environment and avoid most synthetic materials, such as pesticides and antibiotics.” Pesticides and antibiotics are used to extend shelf life in the grocery store, reduce plant spoilage and mutation, and prevent illness in livestock. They are GRAS, or Generally Recognized As Safe to consume by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA).

So, should you eat it? Well, the choice is yours. But don’t worry, here are ways to help you navigate that choice.

What is the risk for eating non-organic foods?

Not a lot is known about how these pesticides and antibiotics affect the human body. The unknown nature of these products is what makes those of us in the nutrition community encourage purchasing organic when available.

Luckily, organic food is available in most grocery stores these days. Not so luckily, big food distributers are playing the very same word association game we areand they are coming up with some creative ways to increase the cost of organic food without increasing the quality. For example, the next time you are buying strawberries, check the country of origin. Are they from South America? The United States only imports certified organic foods from Canada, the EU, India, Israel, Japan, New Zealand, Korea, Mexico, and Switzerland. Any other country with “organic” on the label does not adhere to the same USDA certified organic policy and is simply charging you an organic price for a conventional food.

The Dirty Dozen and Clean Fifteen

In an attempt to help you save some cash and become a more savvy shopper, let’s talk about the “dirty dozen.” These foods, tested by the Environmental Working Group (EWG), show a higher amount of pesticides than average and, if given the option, should be purchased organic. They include:

  • apples
  • peaches
  • nectarines
  • strawberries
  • grapes
  • celery
  • spinach/kale/collard greens
  • sweet bell & hot peppers
  • cucumbers
  • cherry tomatoes
  • imported snap peas
  • potatoes

Next time you head to the grocery store, go in armed with these helpful tips:

  • Buy organic for the “dirty dozen”
  • Buy conventional for the “Clean Fifteen,” which includes:
    • Avocados
    • sweet corn
    • pineapples
    • cabbage
    • frozen sweet peas
    • onions
    • asparagus
    • mangoes
    • papayas
    • kiwis
    • eggplant
    • grapefruit
    • cantaloupe
    • cauliflower
    • sweet potatoes
  • Prioritize buying local over organic. Often times, local farmers are producing products in an organic fashion but can’t afford the accreditation. Support your local farms!
  • Milk and seafood do not need to be purchased organic.
  • A cookie is a cookie. Even if it’s 100% natural and organic – it doesn’t make it a magically healthy cookie.
Lauren Cohen, MS, RD, LDN

Lauren Cohen, MS, RD, LDN is a registered dietitian at Nemours Children's Hospital, in Wilmington, Del.