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“Certified Organic”

We see that tag everywhere nowadays.

It’s on our fresh fruits, our vegetables, and even on some processed packaged foods.

But what does that tag actually mean?

Organic= healthful.

Organic=the responsible choice…right?

In this article, we will fully explore the reality behind ‘organic’ in order to answer the age-old question: should I be buying organic food or is conventional produce good enough?

“Organic”—It’s All in a Label

To earn an organic label, farmers and food producers have to maintain certain standards set forth by the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA). There are several different types of organic labels all with slightly different definitions:

“USDA Organic” and “Certified Organic”: For a fruit or vegetable to have this seal, it means they are certified to be 95% free of synthetic additives like chemical fertilizers, dyes and pesticides. Equally, they can’t be genetically engineered or processed using irradiation or industrial solvents. The other 5% of ingredients could include additives or synthetics if they are on an approved USDA list. The label must identify the organic and non-organic ingredients in the product and contain the name of the organic certifier.

“100% Organic”: These are products that meet the 95% criteria above and do not contain any other foods or additives, synthetics, chemicals or pesticides or genetically engineered substances. The label must show an ingredient list, the name and address of the handler of the finished product, and the name and seal of the organic certifier.

“Made with Organic” Ingredients: This label means that the product has been made with at least 70% organic ingredients. However, the remaining 30% cannot possess any of the processed foods or additives included on the USDA exclusion list. The label must identify the organic and non-organic ingredients in the product along with the name of the organic certifier.

The Two Reasons Organic Might Not Be Exactly What You Think

There are two main issues with organic food that very few people are aware of. The first is that organic food can contain pesticides. The second is that ‘organic’ does not necessarily mean more nutritional benefits, at least not when we consider the presence of essential micronutrients. Let’s take a look at both of these issues.

Organic Food Can Contain Pesticides

You might think that eating only organically grown foods is “safer” because you won’t be exposed to pesticides. But that’s not true.

It might surprise you to learn that some organic farmers do use pesticides. So eating organic doesn’t guarantee a pesticide-free strawberry. However, instead of using synthetic pesticides like their more conventional counterparts, organic farmers tend to use “natural” pesticides (but synthetic pesticides are still allowed if they are on an approved list).

Scientists argue that the key is not necessarily to eliminate fruits and vegetables with traces of pesticides entirely from our diet. The trick is to choose produce that contains the least possible pesticides whether the fruit or vegetable is conventionally or organically farmed.

To help shoppers make those choices, the Environmental Working Group (EWG) compiled a “shoppers guide to pesticide in produce”, naming the “dirtiest” and “cleanest” fruits and vegetables in terms of measured pesticide residue.

As you can see, when it comes to the “dirtiest” fruits and vegetables, it may be wiser to buy organic. However, when it comes to the “cleanest” options, both conventional and organic produce are totally acceptable.

It should be noted however that there is an issue with the methodology to create the Dirty Dozen and Clean Fifteen EWG’s lists*. In their vegetable ranking, they assume that people consume the exact same amounts of each of the fruits and vegetables tested. (But the truth is, most people don’t consume the exact same amount of grapefruit as potatoes. Or onions as strawberries.)

Organic Food Isn’t Necessarily More Nutritional

So we have established that organic food often do contain some pesticides.

But what about the comparative nutritional value of organic versus conventional?

A number of studies ‘proving’ the nutritional superiority of organically grown produce have garnered mainstream popularity. Not surprisingly, there’s a corresponding perception among buyers of conventionally grown produce that they’re getting ‘short-changed’ on nutrition.

But in reality there appears to be no consistent difference in the content of essential vitamins and minerals in organically vs. conventionally grown produce.

However, evidence does point to the fact that organic produce is much higher in phenolic phytonutrients, which are non-essential nutrients, but do promote health and protect against disease.

The Bottom Line About Organic Produce?

The straight truth is this

  • The typical American diet contains too much processed food, too much animal protein and not enough fruits and vegetables.
  • We know definitively that how much plant vs. animal foods we eat has quantifiable effects on the development and progression of cancer and other chronic diseases.

In The China Study, Dr. T. Colin Campbell states that it’s not the dose of carcinogen that matters when it comes to cancer prevention or promotion. He showed conclusively that a high toxin/low animal protein diet is less cancer-promoting than a low toxin/high animal protein diet.

In other words… If you eat a super clean, low pesticide diet but continue to eat animal proteins, that protein may still promote cancer. If you are eating plant-based proteins, the risk may be less even if there are some chemicals in your food.

So before engaging in the great organic debate, we first need to start filling our plates with fresh produce—no matter whether they are organically or conventionally grown.

Bottom line: If you can afford to eat organic and you want to support sustainable farming practices while reducing your exposure to pesticides, do it. But if not, it’s simply better to start eating more plants (from any source) rather than worry about how they were grown.

*Consumer Reports’ From Crop to Table guide takes into consideration country of origin, serving size and actual pesticide residue found in produce within their list of fruits and vegetables recommended to buy organic (page 18). They also list the requirements for pesticide residue by different organic certifiers (pages 20-21).

Rosane Oliveira, DVM, PhD

President & CEO, Plant-Based Life Foundation | Dr. Rosane Oliveira combines a lifelong passion for nutrition with 25 years of genetics research to create programs that help people develop healthy habits on their journey towards a more plant-based lifestyle. She is a Visiting Clinical Professor in Public Health Sciences and was the founding director of the first Integrative Medicine program at the UC Davis School of Medicine. She completed her postgraduate studies in Brazil and did her postdoctoral training in immunogenetics and functional genomics at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.