Which organic foods are worth it and which are not

Although organic foods may reduce exposure to pesticides and hormones, organic foods do not appear to be significantly more nutritious than conventional foods.

Once upon a time, organic foods were sold only in specialty health food stores and eaten only by hippies and health fanatics. Now, organic foods aren’t just popping up everywhere, they’re apparently the “trendy” thing to buy.

But like most trends, eating organic doesn’t come cheap. So, is this trend worth jumping on the bandwagon, or should you save your money?

The first step in deciding whether or not organic is worth it is to understand what organic means. According to the USDA, foods bearing the organic seal must be grown, harvested and processed according to a defined set of standards that include restrictions on the amounts and residues of pesticides, antibiotics and hormones and also use methods that preserve the environment.

For a food to contain the organic seal, it must contain 95% or more organic matter.

Foods with 70-94% organic ingredients can be labeled as “made with organic ingredients” but cannot contain the USDA seal.

Based on these guidelines, it is also important to mention that the terms “natural”, “free-range”, and “hormone-free” are not interchangeable for “organic”. These terms are not regulated by law. It’s also important to note that USDA organic labeling is voluntary, so smaller operations like local markets may not contain the seal, but that doesn’t necessarily mean their products aren’t organic.

So, is eating organic better for my health?

The USDA does not claim that organic foods are healthier or more nutritious than conventional foods. According to a Stanford University study, produce, meat, and dairy showed no nutritional difference between organic and non-organic foods.

This study also demonstrated that there was no significant difference in terms of food safety between organic produce and conventional produce grown with the use of pesticides. The researchers found that the pesticide levels of all foods were generally within allowable safe limits.

As a dietitian, I often use the term “nutrition halo”. Here’s what I mean by that: often when consumers see a food labeled “organic” or “natural,” they automatically assume the product must be healthy. False. the food is still junk food.

If you’re trying to avoid ingredients you can’t pronounce, organic processed foods might be for you. It’s best to buy a wholesome healthy snack that has a better nutrient profile (ex. higher in fiber and protein but lower in sugar) and is not organic than an organic snack high in sugar and low in fiber.

So what foods are worth the extra cost of organic?

A group called the Environmental Working Group compiles a “dirty dozen” list of products each year. This list includes products with the highest levels of pesticide residues. These are foods that, if you are considering buying organic, would be your best bet to buy organic to limit exposure. This year, the list includes the following:

  • Apples
  • Peaches
  • nectarines
  • Strawberries
  • grapes
  • Celery
  • Spinach
  • sweet peppers
  • Cucumbers
  • Cherry tomatoes
  • Imported snow peas
  • Potatoes

The environmental working group also draws up an annual list of products that contain the least pesticide residue. This year, that list includes the following:

  • Lawyers
  • Sweet corn
  • Pineapple
  • Cabbage
  • Frozen snap peas
  • Onions
  • asparagus
  • Mangoes
  • Papayas
  • Kiwi fruit
  • Aubergine
  • Grapefruit
  • Cantaloupe
  • Cauliflower
  • Sweet potatoes

As a general rule, thin-skinned, edible foods are more likely to be exposed to pesticides than thick-skinned foods. This is because you typically eat the skin of thin-skinned foods and discard thick skins, such as avocado or pineapple. Therefore, you are exposed to more pesticides if you eat the skin.

Bottom Line: Although organic foods may reduce exposure to pesticides and hormones, organic foods do not appear to be significantly more nutritious than conventional foods. If you plan on eating organic but don’t want the added cost, consider focusing on buying only the “Dirty Dozen” organically. If you can’t afford organic food, you shouldn’t completely avoid fruits and vegetables. Experts agree that the health benefits of eating fruits and vegetables far outweigh the potential risks of pesticide exposure.


Lauren Ott, RD is a Registered Dietitian at the University of Colorado Anschutz Health and Wellness Center at the Anschutz Medical Campus in Aurora. Check out his website www.thedessertdietitian.com or follow his Facebook and Instagram page @thedessertdietitian for nutritional tips! Ott gets paid to promote KIND bread and flatout.

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