Organic food has grown in popularity over the past decade, and more grocery stores have extended their organic produce offerings and organic product lines. This market is growing rapidly as shoppers continue to select organically grown food out of concerns for health, the environment and animal welfare. Even though many are shopping this section, there are still some common questions that may not be understood, such as, “What does organic actually mean?”, “Are organic foods healthier?”, or “How do natural foods fit in?” Let’s take a closer look at the evidence and how these questions are answered from a nutrition experts’ point of view.
To be considered certified organic, the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) requires that a product must be grown and processed using agricultural practices that promote ecological balance, improve soil and water quality, minimize the use of synthetic materials and conserve biodiversity1. Organic food must be produced without excluded or prohibited methods, like sewage sludge, and must be free of genetically modified organisms (GMOs).
Because of the increased cost associated with these growing practices, organic products may have a higher price tag2 than conventional products.
What does “organic” on the label mean?
You can find four different organic labels1 in the grocery store, and they all have different meanings. Note that only products that are 95% organic or above can use the USDA Organic seal on their packaging or label. Let’s take a closer look at the differences:
1. “100 Percent Organic”
- All ingredients must be certified organic
- May use USDA Organic seal
- 95% of ingredients must be certified organic
- May use USDA Organic seal
3. “Made with Organic ______”
- At least 70% of the product must be certified organic ingredients
- May NOT use USDA Organic seal but may list organic ingredients on the label
4. Specific Organic Ingredient Listings
- Organic ingredients can be listed in the ingredient list for products that are less than 70% organic
- May NOT use USDA Organic seal but may list organic ingredients in the ingredient list and the percentage of organic ingredients
Is “natural” the same as “organic”?
Despite common belief, “natural” and “organic” are not the same! While the term “organic” is heavily regulated, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has not yet formally defined3 the term “natural.” Still, the FDA does have a longstanding policy which considers "natural" to mean that nothing artificial or synthetic has been included in a food that would not normally be expected. For instance, your red velvet birthday cupcakes wouldn’t be considered a natural food because red dye was added to change the original color of the ingredients. Unlike organic foods, “natural” foods do not have requirements around how the food is grown or processed.
The USDA, on the other hand, has formally defined “natural” for the meat, dairy and egg products that it regulates outside of the FDA.4 “Natural” meat and poultry do not contain artificial ingredients or added colors, and have not been fundamentally altered during processing. 5
Are organic foods healthier for me?
Short (and perhaps surprising) answer: Not really! Research has shown that compared to conventional produce, organic produce, on average, has higher levels of antioxidants and vitamins,6 and organic milk has higher levels of omega-3. 7 The differences in nutrients between organic and conventional were modest, however, and may not be practically relevant in people who are already well-nourished.8,9 For instance, organic produce has just 6% more vitamin C than conventional produce.5
Studies have also investigated organic food’s role with allergies, eczema, preeclampsia, cancer incidence and cardiovascular disease.8 Right now, there’s not enough scientific evidence to say whether organic food is more beneficial for health than conventional food.
Are organic foods safer?
Short answer (again): No! You might think that organic products are safer because they are less likely to have pesticide residue.8,10,11 However, the Environmental Protection Agency makes sure that all pesticides used on food in the United States meet stringent safety standards.12 In fact, pesticide levels tend to be 10x below the level deemed safe for humans. Even the Dirty Dozen, an annually updated list of produce with the “highest” pesticide levels, still fall well below the pesticide safety levels set by the EPA and are not a risk to consumers.13 This means that all foods, whether organic or conventional, are safe to eat.
Should I buy organic, then?
Short answer: Up to you! While organic and conventionally grown foods may not be significantly different when it comes to nutrition and safety, there are other reasons you may choose to buy organic. You may be interested in organic products because of the organic, environmental and animal welfare practices, common reasons customers shop organic.
Research shows that organic farming practices can: 14
- Improve water quality
- Conserve energy
- Increase biodiversity
- Contribute to soil health
As for animals, organic livestock enjoy access to outdoor areas, shade, shelter, space for exercise, fresh air, clean drinking water and direct sunlight.15
Organic, natural, conventional—all are nutritionally similar and safe food sources. Shop for products in a way that fits your personal lifestyle, budget and needs.
Explore more healthy living advice from our team of experts.
Disclaimer: This information is educational only and is not meant to provide healthcare recommendations. Please see a healthcare provider.
- USDA, About Organic Labeling
- FAO, Organic Agriculture
- FDA, Natural Labeling
- FDA Reader, FDA or USDA Jurisdiction
- USDA, Meat and Poultry Labeling Terms
- Barański et al., 2014
- Średnicka-Tober et al., 2016
- Brantsæter et al., 2017
- Food Navigator, 2016
- Smith-Spangler et al., 2012
- Baker and Benbrook, 2002
- EPA, Food and Pesticides
- Winter and Katz, 2011
- USDA, Benefits of Organic Certification
- USDA, Organic Practices