Organic Foods

Organic foods are growing in popularity, but there is still confusion as to whether they are more nutritious and safer than conventional food.
Organic Foods

As organically grown foods continue to rise in popularity, many people are still wondering what these foods are and how they impact health.

What does organic mean?
Organic is a term that describes the way farmers grow, handle and process foods, rather than a particular characteristic of the food itself. In order for a food to be considered organic, it must be grown and processed without conventional pesticides, preservatives, chemical herbicides and fertilizers. Also, organic meat, poultry, eggs and dairy products must come from animals that are given no growth hormones or feed additives. Organic farmers emphasize the use of materials and practices to help protect the environment and promote animal welfare.

In 2002, the USDA put in place a set of national standards that food labeled "organic" must meet, whether it is grown in the United States or imported from other countries. Along with these national organic standards, strict labeling rules were developed to help consumers know the exact organic content of the food they buy. For example, foods made entirely with certified organic ingredients and methods can be labeled "100-percent organic" and foods made with 95-percent organic ingredients can use the word "organic." Both of these food products may also display the USDA organic seal.

Although the organic standards and labeling practices vary from country to country, the European Union, Japan and Australia have similar practices to the United States and are also overseen by their respective government agencies.

Eating Organic for Health
There is a widespread perception among consumers that organically grown foods are more nutritious than conventional produce. In fact, research has shown that people tend to buy these foods more for their perceived health benefits than for their potential benefits to livestock or the environment.1 While organic foods have the perception of health, the scientific evidence shows no overall nutritional differences in organic versus conventionally grown produce.2 Organic foods have not been found to have health benefits over conventional foods.3

Some people also propose that the lower amounts of pesticide residues in organically grown foods makes them safer. Again, no conclusive scientific evidence has emerged to support this claim. 4

Additionally, on a calorie-for-calorie basis, conventional and organic foods are the same; therefore one is not more beneficial for weight loss than the other.

Bottom Line
Eating organically grown foods is truly a personal decision. Making wise food choices and eating a well-balanced diet can equally improve health regardless of its organic or conventional origin.

This content is reviewed regularly. Last updated November 12, 2012.

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1 Magnusson MK, Arvola A, Hursti UK, Aberg L, Sjoden PO. Choice of organic foods is related to perceived consequences for human health and to environmentally friendly behaviour. Appetite. 2003 Apr;40(2):109-17.

2 Dangour AD, Dodhia SK, Hayter A, Allen E, Lock K, Uauy R. Nutritional quality of organic foods: a systematic review. Am J Clin Nutr. 2009 Sep;90(3):680-5. Epub 2009 Jul 29.

3 Dangour AD, Lock K, Hayter A, Aikenhead A, Allen E, Uauy R. Nutrition-related health effects of organic foods: a systematic review. Am J Clin Nutr. 2010 Jul;92(1):203-10. Epub 2010 May 12.

4 Magkos F, Arvaniti F, Zampelas A. Organic food: buying more safety or just peace of mind? A critical review of the literature. Crit Rev Food Sci Nutr. 2006;46(1):23-5