Should You Buy Organic Produce?

by Ani Manukian, RDN, LD

Last Updated: July 24, 2020

In recent years, there has been a lot of buzz around organic foods, but much confusion remains about their place at the table. We’re answering a few FAQ’s to help you decide when it’s best to go for organics or stick to conventional.

What Does “Organic” Even Mean?
To attain “USDA Organic” certification, a grower must establish an organic production system that meets USDA standards including soil fertility, crop nutrition and rotation, and pest management, as verified by a third-party certifying agent. Most synthetic fertilizers and pesticides, as well as GMOs, are prohibited for use in organic farming. It’s a common misconception that organic foods are produced without the use of any synthetic substances. In general, synthetic substances are prohibited unless specifically allowed and non-synthetic substances are allowed unless specifically prohibited. An organic grower may use an approved synthetic substance from the “National List of Allowed and Prohibited Substances” in controlled amounts if weeds, pests, or diseases cannot be managed through other means, so long as the use of the approved synthetic substance is documented in their organic production plan. Simply, the aim is for synthetic substances to be used only as a last resort, to reduce chemical exposure to the environment and those eating the produce, not to avoid their use entirely.

How Do “Organic” and Conventional Produce Compare?
Pesticides, fertilizers, and other synthetic substances used in food production are closely evaluated and approved by the EPA, USDA, and FDA. Growers of conventional produce must also meet standards for synthetic substance use and residue set by these agencies, although the standards are different than those for organics. According to the USDA Pesticide Data Program, conventional produce has on average 30% more chemical residue than organic produce. However, it’s important to note the amounts for both are still far below the established upper limits for human safety. In short, organic produce carries fewer residual chemicals than conventional produce, but both may carry some and both are safe to consume. While experts argue that the presence of a residue does not necessarily mean it is dangerous for human health, and especially not in the miniscule amounts left on the edible portion of the plant, skeptics raise concerns about the repeated exposure of these and other chemicals that have shown to build up in the human body over time. Preference for organics has been fostered based on inaccurate claims of the nutrition benefits of organics over conventional produce, and is just that, a preference.

Health benefits or risks aside, it’s important to note that organic farming’s priority is to reduce its output of chemicals, which contribute over time to the degradation of the environment. Organic farming was created in response to environmental concerns and was not primarily about human health and safety. Concerns about the chemical’s effects on humans only “cropped up” after the fact. For some, the health of the planet may be enough to warrant complete use of organic produce, regardless of how benign conventional produce may be for human health. It should be noted, many environmentally focused practices utilized in organic farming, like cover crops to reduce soil erosion and slow runoff, have now been widely adopted in conventional farming as well.

What’s Worth Buying Organic and What’s Not?
Despite scientific consensus that organic produce is neither safer nor more nutritious than conventional produce, shoppers may still tend to view organics as the better option, but at a higher cost. Organic produce can sometimes cost over two times compared to its conventional counterpart. Those who prefer to include more organic produce in their diet, but can’t afford to go completely organic, may be interested in utilizing the “Dirty Dozen” and “Clean Fifteen” lists set by the Environmental Working Group. The “Dirty Dozen” includes twelve common fruits and vegetables that have more residue since the edible portion of the plant is exposed to the environment, or has a rough texture that would make it difficult to thoroughly clean like berries and bell peppers. The “Clean Fifteen” includes fruits and vegetables whose edible portions are more protected from the environment and may carry less residue, like avocados and bananas. Remember all fruits and vegetables provide a nutritious profile worth incorporating in your diet, organic or not.

Keep in mind the bigger risk is not eating your fruits and veggies. A survey found that among low-income individuals, messaging about pesticide residue in fruits and veggies made them less likely to buy fresh produce, regardless of whether it was conventional or organic. Research from the CDC has shown only one in ten adults are getting enough fruits or vegetables, a recommended minimum five servings daily. Additional research has shown that each additional serving of produce consumed per day reduces one’s risk of death from cardiovascular disease by about 4%, so more really is better! Innumerable benefits have been found for everything from chronic disease risk reduction to cancer prevention to weight maintenance. For help in adding more plants into your diet, set up a free Telenutrition appointment with one of Kroger’s Registered Dietitians.

Disclaimer: This information is educational only and not providing healthcare recommendations. Please see a healthcare provider.

Ani Manukian RDN, LD

Ani Manukian RDN, LD

Ani is living her dream as a real food dietitian, helping her patients merge the science of nutrition with the art of creating tasty, balanced meals. She competes in the sport of weightlifting and has personal and professional experience in sports nutrition, flexible dieting, and weight loss.