Organics vs. Conventional Foods: What is the Difference?

Written By: Sofia Layarda, MPH

Title: Master of Public Health

Alumni: University of California, Berkeley

Last Updated on:

A lot has been written in the media about the Stanford University review of studies comparing organic and conventionally produced foods, which concluded that organic foods are no better nutritionally than their conventional counterparts. Is this a cause for concern? Are we being greenwashed to spend more money on organic foods?

Organics vs. Conventional: What’s the Difference?

The difference between organic and conventional foods is more than just what you find on a Nutrition Facts label. Organic products and conventional products have the same nutritional values. For instance,

  • 1 cup of organic milk has very similar calories, fat, protein, and carbohydrate content to non-organic milk, and both organic and conventionally produced milk are fortified with Vitamins D and A. In other words, organic milk does not have more or less calories than conventional milk.
  • Fruits and vegetables, whether they are organic or conventionally grown, all contain vitamins, minerals, fibers, and other phytonutrients. Actual levels will vary regardless of their organic/non-organic status because of the differences in growing conditions, including nutrient levels in the soil.

Therefore, better nutrition should not be the reason we purchase organics. For most people, buying organics means eating fewer pesticides, hormones, antibiotics, etc. Organic milk is produced without the use of growth hormones, pesticides, and antibiotics. Organic regulations also prohibit the use of genetically modified organisms (GMO) and require that the production of foods adhere to environmentally and ecologically friendly practices. Produce grown in accordance with organic regulations cannot use synthetic pesticides or fertilizers. Several studies have documented the reduction in pesticide levels in the urine of children consuming conventionally grown produce when they switch to the organic version of the produce they eat.

So, Is Organic Worth the Extra Money?

We would argue that yes, organics are worth the extra money because organic is about much more than which nutrients are contained within the food. However, not everyone can afford to buy organic exclusively. Don’t be discouraged: there are still ways to minimize your exposure to pesticides in conventional produce, such as by checking out the Environmental Working Group’s list of “clean” (minimal to no detectable pesticide residues) and “dirty” (high levels of pesticide residues) produce. If you have room in your budget, buy organic versions of the produce listed as the “dirty dozen,” such as apples, celery, strawberries, and bell peppers.

The Bottom Line

Health guidelines all recommend that we eat more plant-based foods, particularly of the minimally processed variety: fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and legumes. Don’t let the “non-organic” status of a particular food discourage you from buying it. We would also like to point out that there are local growers or farmers who may not be officially certified organic, but are growing and producing their foods in a way that preserves the soil and environment. So eat local! Don’t discount local producers just because they don’t sport an organic label.

Tell Us: How often do you buy organics?


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