Do you ever find yourself at the grocery store, trying to rationalize why you should pay a premium for the organic red peppers, when the conventional ones are half the price? Does buying organic matter?

Of course, as an athlete, you want to fuel your body with the most nutritious foods and minimize your exposure to potentially harmful chemicals. But, is organic actually healthier?

The honest answer is “yes”— there’s a mountain of scientific evidence to support the benefits of organic food for the body and the environment. In this article, we’ll get to the bottom of the organic vs non organic debate. 

Understanding Organic- The Definition of Organic Food is…

Understanding what organic means can help you make informed choices next time you’re at the grocery store, or perusing your local farmers’ market.

The term “organic” simply refers to something that is living—e.g. you, me, the birds, and the bees. But, what exactly is the definition of organic food? 

Organic farming profoundly changes the way we grow, produce, and process food. It’s about using cultural, biological, and mechanical practices that conserve natural resources and promote ecological balance. 

According to the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA), organic foods are produced in accordance with strict federal standards, which regulate various processes, including pest and weed control, soil management, animal welfare, and the use of artificial food additives. The USDA outlines strict federal guidelines surrounding three key areas: crop management, livestock management, and the processing of organic food.[1]

Organic Crop ManagementFruits, Vegetables, Legumes, & Grains

Organic producers believe it is important to allow Mother Nature to provide us with food the way it was intended to be—without the use of synthetic chemicals and other unnatural agricultural approaches that have questionable places on a farm and in a human body. This means:

  • No artificial fertilizers
  • No synthetic pesticides
  • No chemical herbicides
  • No genetically modified organisms (GMOs) 
  • No sewage sludge (using remains of processed human waste as fertilizer)
  • No irradiation (the process of exposing food to ionizing radiation to kill pathogens and extend shelf life) 

Rather than using synthetic fertilizers to improve plant growth and artificial pesticides to prevent insects, organic producers utilize natural and environmentally-friendly inputs, like mulches and manure, and rely on biological-based farming practices, such as crop rotations and crop covers.  

These organic farming practices place a large emphasis on preserving soil quality and are based on the belief that healthy soils give rise to healthy plants.

In fact, the USDA requires that no prohibited substances be applied to the land for at least 3 years before harvest. After all, we can’t expect soils that are devoid of life and deficient in vitamins and minerals to produce the nutrient-dense plants needed to sustain health. Sure, your regular Granny Smith apple always looks crisp and crunchy. But, what’s lurking beneath that appealing appearance? 

Organic vs Non Organic crop farming infographic

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Organic Livestock Management – Meat, Poultry, Eggs, & Dairy 

Organic meat, poultry, and dairy are subject to their own set of standards regulated by the USDA.[2] Organic livestock must be raised under conditions that support the animal’s welfare and promote their natural behaviors. This means year-round access to the outdoors for fresh air, sunlight, and exercise, as well as clean drinking water, shade, and shelter. They must receive 100% certified organic food and be prevented from co-mingling with non-organic plants and animals. 

Certain livestock—such as cattle, sheep, and goats—must also have access to certified organic pastures throughout the entire grazing season, which varies from 120 to 365 days per year depending on the geographic region. 

These low-stress living conditions are shown to improve the animal’s health and strengthen their immune system. However, to remain classified as ‘organic’, farmers must refrain from administering antibiotics or other synthetic drugs. Only a few medications, such as vaccines, dewormers, and pain medications, are permitted. Other conventional animal raising practices, including genetic engineering, natural or synthetic hormones, irradiation, and the use of sewage sludge or manure re-feeding are also strictly prohibited. 

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Multi-Ingredient Organic Foods

Organic foods that are processed, packaged, or combined with other ingredients are subject to the National List of Allowed and Prohibited Substances. This means the product cannot contain synthetic substances, such as artificial sweeteners, colors, flavors, or preservatives. During the handling process, the organic product cannot come in contact with non-organic matter. 

Organic vs Non Organic Foods: Is Organic Healthier?

Non-organic foods are produced through conventional farming practices, which prioritize productivity and profitability over environmental sustainability, animal welfare, and sometimes even human health. Here are several organic food benefits:

Rich in Vitamins & Minerals 

Despite mixed results in the past, research is beginning to confirm what agricultural experts have always expected—that organic crops are more nutritious than their conventional counterparts. Several studies show that organic produce contains significantly higher levels of vitamin C, and important minerals, including iron, zinc selenium, magnesium, and phosphorus.[3]

In fact, one study found that organic strawberries and corn contain up to 52% higher concentrations of vitamin C.[4] Another study found that organic meat has a higher concentration of essential amino acids, including 72% more taurine.[5]

Powerful Antioxidant Properties

Organically grown crops also contain a wider range and higher volume of antioxidant phytonutrients, such as phenolic acids, anthocyanins, flavonoids, and carotenoids. [6]  In fact, research shows that:

  • Organic tomatoes have up to 97% more antioxidant activity.[7] 
  • Organic blueberries have up to 35% more antioxidant activity.[8]
  • Organic onions have up to 20% higher antioxidant activity.[9] 

Organic crops produce antioxidant phytonutrients to naturally improve their ability to withstand disease and resist pests. However, these natural compounds also confer health benefits to humans. In particular, antioxidants can reduce your risk of cardiovascular disease, several cancers, and neurodegenerative diseases (like Alzheimer’s). 

And it’s not just organic plants—organically grown beef is also shown to have 170% more α‐linolenic acid, 24% more α‐tocopherol, 34% more coenzyme Q10, and 53% more β‐carotene, than conventional beef.[5]

More Favorable Fatty Acid Profile

Organic meat, milk, and dairy is brimming with desirable omega-3 fatty acids.[10] Organic milk, in particular, contains up to 56% higher levels of omega-3 fatty acids than conventional milk, such as α-linolenic acid and conjugated linolenic acid.[11] These polyunsaturated fats have powerful protective properties that play an important role in preventing cardiovascular disease, macular degeneration, Alzheimer’s disease, and autoimmune disorders, like type I diabetes. Omega-3s are also particularly critical for proper fetal brain development.

Fewer Synthetic Pesticides 

Synthetically produced pesticides—which have a host of harmful effects ranging from acute poisonings to long-term health problems, such as neurological deficits, respiratory disorders, dermatological conditions, brain cancers, miscarriages, and birth defects— have been used heavily throughout the United States since the 1950s.[12]

Even today, conventional crops in the United States are four times more likely to contain pesticide residues than organic varieties.[11] What’s more, chemical residues on conventional crops are known to regularly exceed legal safety limits set by the USDA.

Fortunately, organic farmers are prohibited from using synthetic pesticides—including insecticides, herbicides, and fungicides—and data suggests that organic produce does contain lower synthetic pesticide residues. Soaking does remove some residues, but it isn’t enough to entirely prevent these toxic chemicals from passing on to your plate. In fact, scientists recently found that swapping to an organic diet for just six days reduces the urine synthetic pesticide levels by an average of 60%.[13] 

To help reduce your exposure to toxic chemical residues, check out the EWG’s “dirty dozen” and “clean fifteen” for 2019 — a resource designed to help consumers reduce their pesticide exposures by providing data on conventional produce with the most and least pesticide residues. 

Lower Nitrate Levels

Organic crops contain significantly fewer nitrates than conventional crops due to the use of crop rotations and natural mulches, instead of synthetic herbicides and artificial fertilizers. In fact, keeping nitrate concentrations below legal limits is a challenge for many conventional farmers. 

While nitrate does serve a purpose in the human body and can be deemed beneficial at low intakes, it is also considered harmful to humans, particularly infants, at high intakes. When consumed, nitrate interacts with bacteria in our mouth and converts into nitrate once in the gut. Nitrate reacts with your red blood cells and can reduce your oxygen-carrying capacity by rendering your hemoglobin inactive. [14] 

Posts related to Organic vs Non Organic Food

Fewer Heavy Metals

Since the introduction of artificial fertilizers, conventional crops have contained significantly higher levels of cadmium— a toxic metal and known carcinogen used in the production of rechargeable batteries and cigarettes.[15] 

While acute cadmium poisoning is relatively rare within the general population, health experts are concerned about the potential effects of long-term, low-level exposure resulting from contaminated air, water, soil, and food. Cadmium exposure affects multiple organs throughout the body, including the skeletal, nervous, cardiovascular, respiratory, reproductive, and urinary systems.[16]

Prevents the Spread of Antibiotic-Resistant Bacteria

Conventional livestock is routinely fed antibiotics to prevent illness, making it easier to raise animals in crowded and unsanitary conditions. While clearly not in the animal’s best interests, this practice also poses a threat to global health as it contributes to antibiotic resistance. 

Antibiotic resistance naturally occurs over time as bacteria adapts to the medication and is able to survive, and even multiply in the presence of antibiotics. As a result, drug-resistant ‘superbugs’ can cause infections in animals and humans—such as pneumonia, tuberculosis, and gonorrhea—which are extremely difficult to treat. 

A study out of Ohio State University recently revealed that pigs on conventional swine farms across Illinois, Minnesota, Iowa, North Carolina and Ohio are becoming carriers of deadly microorganisms, including the methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus (MRSA) bacterium, which is resistant to several major classes of antibiotics. What’s even more concerning is that conventional farmworkers also tested positive for MRSA.[17]

Even the air surrounding conventional farms is being affected. Researchers from the University of California Los Angeles examined antibiotic resistance in airborne bacteria near non-organic vs. organic cattle farms in California. Three types of antibiotic-resistant DNA were detected at higher levels and frequencies near conventional farms.[18]

Fortunately, transitioning from conventional to organic practices and removing antibiotic use can result in immediate and significant reductions in antibiotic resistance for some bacteria. In fact, converting to organic farming has shown to reduce multi-drug resistance bacteria in poultry farms by up to 67%.[19] It’s pretty safe to say that swapping to organic meat, poultry, dairy, and eggs will reduce your exposure to antibiotic-resistance bacteria.

Free from Synthetic Hormones

Synthetic growth and breeding hormones are strictly prohibited in organic farming, whereas the Food and Drug Administration has permitted the use of several steroid hormones in non-organic livestock since the 1950s, including testosterone, progesterone, estradiol and their synthetic versions. 

With the exception of poultry, synthetic hormones remain in widespread use throughout the United States to accelerate growth rates, boost milk production, and improve fertility levels. For example, trenbolone, the synthetic version of testosterone, has 8 to 10 times more anabolic activity than its natural counterpart.[20]

While pasteurization destroys up to 90% of growth hormones in milk, research shows that residues remain in meat for several weeks. The FDA claims these hormone-treated animals pose no threat to humans. However, there is clear evidence that any hormone that originates outside the body can disrupt the delicate equilibrium of our endocrine system and contribute to hormonal imbalances. Due to these potential risks, the European Union banned the use of synthetic hormones and prohibited the import of hormone-treated animals and meat in 1989.[21]

Organic Crops are GMO-free

basket of organic food crops

Genetically engineered (GE) crops and the use of genetically modified organisms (GMOs) is commonplace on conventional farms. In fact, genetically engineered varieties of corn, wheat, soybeans, and sugar have been commercially available since 1996, and most Americans unknowingly consume foods derived from GE crops. Frighteningly, genetically modified crops make up more than half of all agricultural land in the United States.[22]

According to 2018 data from the USDA, the following U.S crops are GMO:

  • 92% of all corn
  • 94% of all soybeans
  • 94% of all cotton

Genetic engineering—now called “agricultural biotechnology” for obvious reasons— utilizes a range of tools, including recombinant DNA technology to directly transfer genes from one organism to another to create an entirely new genetically modified organism. 

Crops have been genetically modified to make pest control and weed management easier, and protect crops against disease and adverse environmental conditions, such as drought and frost. However, herbicide-tolerant and pesticide-resistant crops have led to an increase in the use of artificial herbicides and pesticides, and ultimately, more chemical residues on our plates. The USDA also acknowledges that GM crops have contributed to the emergence of “super weeds” passing on their genes to wild relatives, leading to the spread of herbicide-resistant weeds.

Organic Animal Products are GMO-free

Genetic engineering (GE) is also widespread in conventional livestock management. Again, recombinant DNA technology is used to introduce new favorable traits into farm animals. For example, recombinant bovine growth hormone (rBGH) is a genetically modified hormone marketed to dairy farmers to increase milk production. 

The Food and Drug Administration approved rBGH in 1993, and it remains in heavy use throughout the United States today. The GE hormone increases the cow’s milk production by stimulating the production of another hormone called insulin-like growth factor (IGF-1). Due to concerns regarding public health and animal welfare, rBGH is not permitted in the European Union or Canada.

Milk from cows treated with rBGH contains significantly higher levels of IGF-1—this naturally-occurring hormone makes certain cells grow at faster rates, promotes inflammation and has been associated with the development of prostate, colorectal and breast cancer. [23] One study also found that people who consumed rBGH treated dairy milk have 10% higher IGF-1 levels in their blood. Also, cows treated with rBGH are more likely to develop bladder infection, which creates an increased reliance on antibiotics and contributes to the development of antibiotic-resistance bacteria.

Other “innovative” companies are taking it one step further by directly modifying the animal’s DNA. In 2019, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) approved the world’s first genetically engineered Atlantic salmon for sale in the United States. Developed by AquaBounty, the GM fish is engineered to grow nearly three times larger than its natural counterpart, and twice as fast. While this may seem like an advantage to sushi lovers across the country, be aware, the fish will not be labeled at GM in stores.

GM crops and GMOs might be agriculturally efficient—less hands-on work, lower labor costs, fast growth rates, higher yields, and more profit—but what are the environmental costs and impacts on human health? You can wait and see, or choose to eat organic. Organic farmers are prohibited from using any form of genetic engineering, or GMOs.

Naturally Fresher and Full of Flavor 

Organic food may not always look perfect, but most people claim that organic food tastes fresher and more flavorsome—and they’re right! Organic food is produced without the use of artificial preservatives or procedures that extend shelf life, like irradiation. As a result, organic foods must be sold as quickly as possible. In order to do this, most organic farmers sell their produce locally to reduce transport time. 

Toddler eating organic food

What’s more, studies show that organic farming practices have a profoundly positive effect on soil and plant health.[24] While there’s no scientific evidence to prove that these nourished soils and robust plants produce more flavorful food—it’s same to assume so!

Foods bearing the USDA certified organic seal are prohibited from containing artificial food additives to enhance the flavor or color. Whereas, more than 10 000 chemicals are allowed to be added to food in the United States, under the 1958 Food Additives Amendment to the 1938 Federal Food Drug and Cosmetic Act. These food additives have been linked to various health problems ranging from endocrine disruptions to thyroid cancer and low birth weights.[25] 

Better for the Environment and Welfare of Animals 

One of the best reasons to buy organic is that it’s better for the environment and more humane for animals. Organic farming practices reduce pollution, promote biodiversity, increase soil fertility, and conserve natural resources. 

In fact, organic farms use less energy and produce less waste per yield, and per hectare of land used.[26] Organically managed soils also have the potential to increase yields during drought years due to superior soil management, which has more organic matter and better water retention.

In terms of pollution, organic farms don’t release synthetic pesticides into the environment, some of which have the potential to harm soil, water, and local wildlife. Banishing the use of these toxic chemicals also protects the health of farmworkers and prevent drift exposure to rural populations. 

Benefits of Organic Food for the Body

Organic food certainly shapes up better on paper, but is there any health benefits to eating organic?

1. Lower Rates of Cancer

Eating organic may reduce your risk of certain cancers, including lymphomas, leukemia, breast cancer, prostate cancer, thyroid cancer, and brain tumors. One population-based cohort study published in the International Journal of Medicine in 2018 found lower rates of cancer amongst French adults who consumed high amounts of organic food. (n = 68 946 adults).[27] 

Another seven-year prospective study from Harvard University found an association between red meat consumption during adolescence and the development of breast cancer later in life (n = 39,268 women).[28]

Eating organic may reduce cancer risk due to the elimination of synthetic hormones, or the protective antioxidant power of organic food. Antioxidants fight free radicals, which are highly reactive chemicals known to damage our cells. This oxidative damage plays an important role in the development of cancer.[29] 

Eating organic can also reduce the levels of free radicals in your body by limiting your exposure to ionizing radiation (e.g. irradiation) and environmental toxins (e.g. synthetic pesticides). 

2. Stronger Immune System

Eating organic may boost your immune system according to a recent study published in the Journal of Science and Food Agriculture.[30] The researchers from Italy found that consuming organic carrots over two years increased lymphocyte populations, including an increase in regulatory T cells. Lymphocytes are a type of white blood cells, which attack invading pathogens, like bacteria and viruses. 

3. Lower Risk of Birth Defects and Impaired Development

Prenatal pesticide exposure has been associated with adverse birth outcomes, including decreased birth weight and length, as well as smaller head circumference.[31,32] 

Even more concerning, a 2007 prospective study, which measured pesticide exposure in pregnant farm workers in California, found that their children had a lower mental development at 24 months of age, and attentional problems at 3.5 and 5 years of age.[33] Other reviews have found links between pesticide exposure and the development of ADHD and ASD [36]

4. Reduced Risk of Allergies and Eczema

If you suffer from allergies eating organic may help. A population-based study from the Netherlands found that children who ate predominantly organic dairy had lower rates of allergic skin conditions.[34] 

Other studies show that children who live on farms, or lead an anthroposophic lifestyle, have lower rates of allergies, like asthma, wheezing, and atopic skin sensitization.  

5. Improves Recovery After Exercise

It’s known that high-intensity exercise lasting longer than 40 minutes increases oxidative stress and minor tissue damage with the body. Fortunately, for athletes with strenuous training programs, eating an antioxidant-rich organic diet is shown to prevent oxidative damage and reduce tissue damage.[34,35] 

Consequently, switching from conventional to organic food may aid your recovery, enabling you to train harder and perform better. 

How Do I Know if I’m Buying Organic? Check the Label

The United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) regulates the organic industry with strict standards. In order to display the USDA organic seal or claim to be organic, products must first meet strict federal standards in regards to production and labeling.

To ensure products adhere to these specifications, farms are subject to annual on-site inspections to assess procedures, as well as periodic residue testing for pesticides or other non-organic residues. To ensure compliance, a certifying agent reviews food packaging before the product hits the shelves as well. 

If you decide to buy organic, always look for the USDA organic seal. However, we know as well as you that between all the dietary claims, nutritional facts and ingredients lists on food packaging, the “organic” label is often the most difficult to decipher. Here’s what each claim means: 

  • 100% organic: These products are made entirely from certified organic ingredients, processes, and procedures. It may have the USDA organic seal. 
  • Organic: At least 95% of the ingredients in these products are organic unless permitted explicitly by the National List of Allowed and Prohibited Substances. It may display the USDA organic seal.
  • Made with Organic: At least 70% of the ingredients in these products are organic, but it is not entitled to the USDA organic seal. 
  • Organic ingredients: The product contains at least one certified organic ingredient, which must be identified. The product is not entitled to the USDA organic seal. 

Don’t be fooled by labels— the words “natural” or “free-range” and “hormone-fee” don’t necessarily mean organic. The word “natural”  and “all-natural” may indicate that the product does not contain artificial flavorings, colors, preservatives, or other synthetic additives, but without the USDA Organic Seal, there’s no way of knowing it’s exact ingredients. 

How Do I Get the Best Bang for My Buck?

  • Know your pesticide levels e.g. “Dirty Dozen” and “Clean Fifteen”
  • Biggest benefits from switching to organic meat, eggs, and dairy 
  • Shop local/farmers markets
  • Join a food co-op
  • Buy in season
  • Eat fruits and vegetables raw
  • Wash before eating (lowers but does not eliminate chemicals)
  • Avoid boiling – steaming is best
  • Choose fresh (packaged food labeled “organic” isn’t necessarily healthy)

 Reference List