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When to buy organic: a registered dietitian's expertise


Organic or conventional? As a registered dietitian, I get this question all the time.

What does organic mean?

This labeling term is defined by the USDA as a product that meets federal standards for production, processing, and certification under the Organic Food Production Act of 1990. The product has been produced "through approved methods that integrate cultural, biological, and mechanical practices that foster cycling of resources, promote ecological balance and conserve biodiversity." What does that mean? No synthetic fertilizers or pesticides, no sewage sludge (ew), no irradiation, and no genetic engineering.

Animals must have access to outdoors and not be given any growth hormones, antibiotics or other drugs. All feed must be 100% organic too. Side note: the farming industry NEVER randomly gives antibiotics. Like you, animals only get antibiotics when they are ill and they are removed from the herd. For example, in dairy cows, the milk is destroyed. Long story short, the biggest difference between organic and conventional is the way the crop was grown. Any product labeled as organic must be USDA certified and most producers choose to put the optional "USDA Organic" label on the product.

But is organic more healthy?

While many consumers think organic is the healthier choice, do organic foods really provide more nutrients and less pesticide residue? Well, according to science, we don't know! The folks at Stanford completed a meta-analysis in 2012 and said, "The published literature lacks strong evidence that organic foods are significantly more nutritious than conventional foods." Two years later, a meta-analysis in British Journal of Nutrition found the opposite conclusion. Despite these findings, organic sales continue to grow. Fans of organic foods believe that food has less pesticide residue, and the farming is more sustainable meaning is uses less energy, produces less greenhouse emissions and is better for the soil.

One important finding in the Stanford study was pesticide residue. Researchers found evidence of pesticide residue in 38% of conventional food (note that residue levels still fell within safe limits deemed by the EPA) and only 7% of organic foods.

Much more than nutrition

Choosing organic is a personal choice. Organic can be a taste preference, sustainability issue, environmental belief, this list goes on. The take-home message: dietitians want you to eat your fruit and veggies, organic or conventional!

What does this dietitian do? If the skin is edible, I go organic (apples, grapes, raw veggies like lettuce & broccoli). If there is a peel or you are going to wash and expose the product to heat (like roasted veggies), go conventional (bananas, oranges, pineapple). Bottom line: organic foods may have reduced exposure to pesticides and hormones but the jury is still out on if they are more nutritious than conventional foods.

Ways to save when the organic price tag is steep:

  • Choose organic when in season
  • Buy local
  • Look into farmer's markets or community supported agriculture (CSA) programs
  • Skip on buying organic junk food (junk food is junk food no matter how is it packaged!)
  • Buy in bulk
  • Look for coupons


Caroline_Susie_corrected Caroline Susie RD/LD
Manager Employee Wellness
Methodist Health System

Caroline manages the internal wellness program to improve the health of Methodist Health System's employee and dependent population. A University of Oklahoma graduate, Caroline has 10 years experience as a registered and licensed dietitian.