Organic foods have exploded in popularity over the last two decades.
In fact, US consumers spent $39.1 billion on organic produce in 2014 (1).
The popularity does not seem to be slowing down, as sales increased by more than 11% from 2014 to 2015 (1).
Many people think organic food is safer, healthier and tastier than regular food (2).
Others say it's better for the environment and the well-being of animals.
This article objectively compares organic and non-organic foods, including their nutrient content and effects on human health.
What is Organic Food?
The term "organic" refers to the process of how certain foods are produced.
Organic foods have been grown or farmed without the use of artificial chemicals, hormones, antibiotics or genetically modified organisms.
In order to be labelled organic, a food product must be free of artificial food additives.
This includes artificial sweeteners, preservatives, coloring, flavoring and monosodium glutamate (MSG).
Organically grown crops tend to use natural fertilizers like manure to improve plant growth. Animals raised organically are also not given antibiotics or hormones.
Organic farming tends to improve soil quality and the conservation of groundwater. It also reduces pollution and may be better for the environment.
The most commonly purchased organic foods are fruits, vegetables, grains, dairy products and meat. Nowadays there are also many processed organic products available, such as sodas, cookies and breakfast cereals.
Bottom Line: Organic foods are produced through farming practices that only use natural substances. This means avoiding all artificial chemicals, hormones, antibiotics or genetically modified organisms (GMOs).
Organic Foods May Contain More Nutrients
Studies comparing the nutrient content of organic and non-organic foods have provided mixed results.
This is most likely due to natural variation in food handling and production.
However, evidence does suggest that foods grown organically may be more nutritious.
Organically Grown Crops Have More Antioxidants and Vitamins
Several studies have found that organic foods generally contain higher levels of antioxidants and certain micronutrients, such as vitamin C, zinc and iron (3, 4, 5, 6).
In fact, antioxidant levels can be up to 69% higher in these foods (6).
One study also found that organically grown berries and corn contained 58% more antioxidants and up to 52% higher amounts of vitamin C (5).
What's more, one study reported that replacing regular fruit, vegetables and cereals with organic versions could provide extra antioxidants in the diet. This was comparable to eating 1-2 extra portions of fruit and vegetables daily (6).
Organic plants do not rely on chemical pesticide sprays to protect themselves. Instead, they produce more of their own protective compounds, namely antioxidants.
This may partly explain the higher levels of antioxidants in these plants.
Nitrate Levels are Generally Lower
Organically grown crops have also been shown to have lower levels of nitrate. In fact, studies have shown that nitrate levels are 30% lower in these crops (6, 7).
High nitrate levels are linked to an increased risk of certain types of cancer (8).
They're also linked to a condition called methemoglobinemia, a disease in infants that affects the body's ability to carry oxygen (8).
That being said, many people believe that the harmful effects of nitrates have been overstated. The benefits of eating vegetables far outweigh any negative effects.
Organic Dairy and Meat May Have A More Favorable Fatty Acid Profile
Organic milk and dairy products may contain higher levels of omega-3 fatty acids and slightly higher amounts of iron, vitamin E and some carotenoids (7, 9).
However, organic milk may contain less selenium and iodine than non-organic milk, two minerals that are essential for health (9).
A review of 67 studies found that organic meat contained higher levels of omega-3 fatty acids and slightly lower levels of saturated fats than conventional meat (10).
A higher intake of omega-3 fatty acids has been associated with many health benefits, including a reduced risk of heart disease.
However, Several Studies Found No Differences
While several studies find organic foods to contain more nutrients, many others have found insufficient evidence to recommend organic over inorganic (11).
An observational study comparing the nutrient intakes of nearly 4,000 adults consuming either organic or conventional vegetables found conflicting results.
Although a slightly higher intake of certain nutrients was seen in the organic group, this was most likely due to higher overall vegetable consumption (12).
A review of 55 studies found no differences in the nutrient content of organic versus regular crops, with the exception of lower nitrate levels in organic produce (13).
Another review of 233 studies found a lack of strong evidence to conclude that organic foods are more nutritious than regular foods (11).
Nevertheless, it is important to remember that these studies vary quite widely in their results.
This is because the nutrient content of food depends on many factors, such as soil quality, weather conditions and when the crops are harvested.
The composition of dairy products and meat can be affected by differences in animal genetics and animal breed, what the animals eat, the time of year and type of farm.
The natural variations in the production and handling of foods make comparisons difficult. Therefore, the results of these studies must be interpreted with caution.
Bottom Line: Organically grown crops may have less nitrate and more of certain vitamins, minerals and antioxidants. Organic dairy products and meat may have more omega-3 fatty acids. However, the evidence is mixed.
Less Chemicals and Resistant Bacteria
Many people choose to buy organic food in order to avoid artificial chemicals.
Evidence suggests that consuming these foods may reduce your exposure to pesticide residues and antibiotic-resistant bacteria (11).
One study found that levels of cadmium, an extremely toxic metal, were 48% lower in organic produce. In addition, pesticide residues were four times more likely to be found in non-organic crops (6).
It is important to note that the higher levels of cadmium and pesticide residue in conventionally grown produce were still well below safety limits (14).
However, some experts worry that cadmium can accumulate over time in the body, potentially causing harm. Washing, scrubbing, peeling and cooking food can reduce these chemicals, although it doesn't always remove them completely (15).
Nevertheless, evidence suggests that the risk of exposure to pesticide residue in foods is small and unlikely to cause harm (16).
Since organic farming does not use antibiotics in animals, these products generally contain slightly lower levels of antibiotic-resistant bacteria (17, 18).
Bottom Line: Choosing organic foods may reduce your exposure to toxins, pesticide residues and antibiotic-resistant bacteria. However, the levels of toxins in regular produce are generally well below the safety limits.
Do Organic Foods Have Health Benefits?
There is some evidence suggesting that organic foods have health benefits.
For example, several lab studies found that their higher antioxidant content helped protect cells from damage. And animal studies show that organic diets may benefit growth, reproduction and the immune system (7).
One study also reported that chickens fed an organic diet showed reduced weight gain, and had stronger immune systems (19).
Observational studies in humans have linked organic foods to a lower risk of allergies and eczema in children and infants (7, 20, 21).
A large observational study of 623,080 women found no difference in cancer risk between those who never ate organic food and those who ate it regularly (22).
Another study found that antioxidant levels were higher in men following an organic diet. However, this study was small and not randomized (23).
When 16 people followed an organic or conventional diet over two 3-week periods, those on the organic diet had slightly higher levels of certain antioxidants in their urine. Yet this study also had limitations that may have caused the differences (24).
Unfortunately, there's simply not enough strong evidence available to confirm that organic foods benefit human health more than conventional foods (7, 11).
More high-quality studies are needed.
Bottom Line: There is not enough strong evidence available to prove that eating organic provides health benefits over eating regular foods.
Organic Junk Food is Still Junk Food
Just because a product is labeled "organic," it doesn't mean that it is healthy.
Some of these products are still processed foods high in calories, sugar, salt and added fats.
For example, organic cookies, chips, sodas and ice cream can all be purchased in supermarkets.
Despite being organic, these products are still unhealthy. So if you are trying to lose weight or eat healthy, you may be harming yourself by eating these foods.
Organic product labels will often state that the ingredients are "natural" — for example, using raw cane sugar instead of plain sugar. However, sugar is still sugar.
The majority of the population consumes too much sugar already. To think it's healthy to consume lots of organic sugar is simply wrong.
In simple terms, when you choose organic junk food, you may just be choosing a slightly higher-quality version of regular junk food.
However, since regulations generally ban the use of artificial food additives in these foods, buying organic is a good way to avoid a lot of the chemicals that are often added to conventional foods.
Bottom Line: Processed organic food can still be low in nutrients and high in added fat, sugar and calories. Organic junk food is still junk food.
How to Know if You're Buying Organic
The United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) has set up an organic certification program.
This means any farmer or food producer selling organic food must meet strict government standards.
If you decide to choose organic, it's important to look for the USDA organic seal.
Also, watch for these statements on food labels, so you can identify food that is truly organically grown:
- 100% Organic: This product is made entirely from organic ingredients.
- Organic: At least 95% of the ingredients in this product are organic.
- Made with Organic: At least 70% of the ingredients are organic.
If a product contains less than 70% organic ingredients, it cannot be labeled organic or use the USDA seal. Similar standards are enforced in Europe, Canada and Australia. Each country or continent has its own seal to help consumers identify organic food.
Bottom Line: To identify organic food, look for the appropriate seal or a statement like one of the three examples above.
Take Home Message
Organic food may contain more antioxidants and nutrients than regular food, although the evidence is mixed.
Consuming organic food may also reduce your exposure to artificial chemicals, hormones and antibiotic-resistant bacteria.
However, it often costs more and may spoil faster.
Additionally, it's not clear if going organic has additional health benefits.
Whether to buy organic is a choice you should make based on your personal preferences and values.
If you think paying a little more for organic food gets you a more nutritious and safer product, you might want to save your money.
A study led by researchers at Stanford University says that organic products aren’t necessarily more nutritional than conventional varieties, and they’re no less susceptible to contamination from disease-causing microbes like E. coli either.
The findings run counter to the commonly believed wisdom. Organic foods are grown without man-made pesticides or heavy reliance on antibiotics and growth hormones to boost yields; organic farmers also use natural-based fertilizers, like manure, and raise livestock in less-confined spaces — all of which some growers say are key contributors to a healthier and sometimes more nutritious product. Consumers who buy organic have been willing to pay up to twice as much for goods with organic labels.
But the latest results, published in the Annals of Internal Medicine, suggest that buyers may be wasting their money. “We did not find strong evidence that organic foods are more nutritious or healthier than conventional foods,” says Dr. Crystal Smith-Spangler, an instructor in the division of general medical disciplines at Stanford. “And both organic and conventional foods seem to have a similar risk of contamination with bacteria, so consumers shouldn’t assume that one type of food has a lower risk or is safer in terms of food-borne illnesses. Both are equally likely to be contaminated.”
(MORE:Does Organic Food Turn You into a Jerk?)
For their new study, Smith-Spangler and her colleagues conducted a review of two categories of research, including 17 studies that compared health outcomes between consumers of organic vs. conventional food products and 223 studies that analyzed the nutritional content of the foods, including key vitamins, minerals and fats.
While the researchers found little difference in nutritional content, they did find that organic produce were 30% less likely to have pesticide residue than conventional fruits and vegetables, which makes sense given that organic farmers depend less on synthetic pest-control methods. Neither organic nor conventional foods showed levels of pesticides high enough to exceed food-safety thresholds. And although both organic and conventional meats were equally likely to be contaminated with bacteria, albeit at very low rates, organic chicken and pork were 33% less likely than conventional livestock to harbor bacteria that were resistant to three or more antibiotics (resistance is an indication of possible overuse of the drugs).
Smith-Spangler’s team separated all foods into two general groups — organic and conventional — so the researchers stress that there may be individual differences in the way specific farmers, either those that use organic methods or those relying on conventional ones, grow their plants or livestock. But overall, there doesn’t seem to be much support for the claim that organic foods are more nutritious.
(MORE:Eating Better than Organic)
The researchers did find, however, that organic milk and chicken contained higher levels of omega-3 fatty acids, a healthy fat also found in fish that can reduce the risk of heart disease. Organic produce also contained more total phenols than conventional varieties; phenols include flavonoids that work as antioxidants to fight genetic damage that can lead to cancer and even some neurological disorders like Parkinson’s. But these nutritional differences were small, and the researchers were reluctant to make much of them until further studies confirm the trends.
Based on the few studies included in the analysis that compared health outcomes in people eating organic vs. conventional, there was no evidence that one group was healthier than the other. Some of the studies found that children eating organic produce had lower levels of pesticide residue in their urine than those consuming conventional produce, but the numbers were too small to draw any general conclusions.
Smith-Spangler says the findings should help to educate consumers at the market about what they are buying. Organic foods are produced with fewer pesticides and more natural-growing practices, but that doesn’t always translate into a more nutritious or healthier product.
MORE:How to Create Your Own Healthy Eating Plan with Pinterest
Alice Park is a writer at TIME. Find her on Twitter at @aliceparkny. You can also continue the discussion on TIME’s Facebook page and on Twitter at @TIME.