How your food is grown or raised can have an impact on your health and the environment. Learn the essentials of organic food to determine whether buying organic is the choice for you.

The organic market is the fastest growing sector of the food industry, with sales growing from $43.3 billion in 2015 to $50.1 billion in 2019 in the United States alone. Demand for organic foods is escalating rapidly worldwide, gaining in popularity beyond North America and Europe to developing countries like India and China. Unlike conventional foods, organic foods are grown from a farming system which avoids the use of synthetic pesticides, fertilizers, genetically modified organisms, and antibiotics. Read on to learn five facts about organic food that may surprise you.

1. The perception of organic food is the major driver for increased demand

As our society becomes more health-conscious, we worry about the damaging effects of chemical residues and preservatives and seek out healthier alternatives. Consumers buy organic food because they perceive these foods to be more nutritious, superior in freshness and taste, less harmful to their bodies, and more ethical toward animals and the environment. How correct are these perceptions? In reality, some are supported scientifically and some are not.

2. Pesticide residue is significantly lower in organic food

Pesticides are designed to be toxic to insects and weeds and long-term exposure for humans can pose serious health risks for blood cells, the liver, the kidney, and the nervous system. Not surprisingly, detection of pesticide residue is considerably lower in organic foods than in conventional. In one study, only 7% of 3,041 organic produce samples contained residue compared with 38% of conventional samples. A 2020 study confirmed that levels of glyphosate, a common pesticide, dropped by 70% in the body after eating an organic diet for only six days.

3. Organic foods are not necessarily more nutritious

With health at the forefront of an organic shopper’s mind, it may be surprising to learn that evidence supporting enhanced nutrition of an organic diet is pretty scarce. While organic fruits and vegetables are shown to have higher concentrations of antioxidants, vitamin C, omega-3 fatty acids, and minerals like iron, magnesium, and zinc, human blood samples and immunity markers do not reflect this increase in nutritional value when compared with eating conventional produce.

4. Buying organic means more than simply avoiding pesticides

Aside from growing food, organic farmers are tasked with handling, processing, distributing, and marketing their products that align with the organic philosophy: to improve the health of the ecosystem from the smallest organisms found in the soil to humans. Organic farming requires crop rotating, diversity in crops and livestock, raising animals without antibiotics or synthetic growth hormones, soil improvement, and recycling materials.

5. The organic industry is the most highly regulated food system in the United States

The “USDA Organic” label found on your apple is supported by many rigorous federal production and processing requirements. Each step of the farm-to-table process is closely monitored and must be certified to strict federal organic standards, from the land on which the apple trees are grown, to the farmers growing the apple trees, from the facility preparing the apples after harvesting, to the handling of the apples to prepare for distribution.

The bottom line?

If you would like to enjoy foods that will substantially lower your exposure to pesticides, are more environmentally friendly, and improve animal welfare, buying organic may be a great choice for you. Look for the “USDA Organic” label on produce or packages to ensure your food adheres to the stringent organic standards required. Need help getting started? Focus first on buying organic produce found on the “Dirty Dozen” list. These are the 12 fruits and vegetables that are the most highly contaminated with pesticides when grown conventionally:

1. Strawberries

2. Spinach

3. Kale

4. Nectarines

5. Apples

6. Grapes

7. Peaches

8. Cherries

9. Pears

10. Tomatoes

11. Celery

12. Potatoes