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Small Steps to Eating Organic Food

September 2008

Karen Ensle Ed.D.., RD, FADA, CFCS
Family and Community Health Sciences Educator
Rutgers Cooperative Extension of Union County

Here’s an interesting health and wealth connection…should families eat organic foods even if they have a higher price tag? Is it healthier to eat organics and do they really have the power to fight disease and promote longer life? The word "organic" refers to the way farmers grow and process fruits, vegetables, grains, dairy products, and meat. Organic farming practices are designed to encourage soil and water conservation and reduce pollution. Farmers who grow organic produce and meat don't use conventional methods to fertilize, control weeds, or prevent livestock disease.

If you decide to buy organic food, look for a USDA Organic label as it indicates that the food was produced and processed according to USDA standards and at least 95% of the ingredients in that food are organically produced. The seal is voluntary, but many organic producers use it as indicated below:

  • Products that are 100% organic such as fruits, vegetables, eggs or other single ingredient foods also carry a USDA seal.
  • Products that contain at least 70% organic ingredients can say “made with organic ingredients” and the organic seal cannot be used on these products. Food labels may contain other information such as “all-natural, “free-range” or “hormone-free”; however these terms do not mean the food is “organic”.
  • The USDA now uses private and state agencies to inspect and certify food companies that market organic foods. Small farmers with less than $5,000 in organic sales, such as those selling at small farmers’ markets, are exempt from the certification process but they still must be truthful in their label claims and comply with government standards.
  • Individuals or companies who sell or label a product as organic when they know it does not meet USDA standards, can be fined up to $10,000 for each violation.
Consider these factors when deciding whether or not to purchase organic food:

Nutrition. No conclusive evidence shows that organic food is more nutritious than is conventionally grown food. And the USDA — even though it certifies organic food — doesn't claim that these products are safer or more nutritious.

Quality and appearance. Organic foods meet the same quality and safety standards as conventional foods. The difference lies in how the food is produced, processed, and handled. You may find that organic fruits and vegetables spoil faster because they aren't treated with waxes or preservatives. Also, expect less-than-perfect appearances in some organic produce — odd shapes, varying colors, and perhaps smaller sizes.

Pesticides. Conventional growers use pesticides to protect their crops from molds, insects, and diseases. When farmers spray pesticides, this can leave residue on produce. Some people buy organic food to limit their exposure to these residues. Most experts agree, however, that the amount of pesticides found on fruits and vegetables poses a very small health risk.

Environment. Some people buy organic food for environmental reasons. Organic farming practices are designed to benefit the environment by reducing pollution and conserving water and soil.

Cost. Most organic food costs more than conventional food products. Higher prices are due to more expensive farming practices, tighter government regulations, and lower crop yields.

Taste. Some people say they can taste the difference between organic and nonorganic food. Others say they find no difference. Taste is a personal consideration. Whether you buy organic or not, finding the freshest foods available will have the biggest impact on taste.

Listed below are some additional organic food buying tips:
  • Buy fruits and vegetables in season to ensure the highest quality. Also, try to buy your produce the day it's delivered to market, for the freshest food possible.
  • Read food labels carefully. Just because a product says it's organic or contains organic ingredients doesn't necessarily mean it's a healthier alternative. Some organic products may still be high in sugar, salt, fat, or calories.
  • Don't confuse natural foods with organic foods. Only those products with the "USDA Organic" label have met USDA standards.
  • Wash all fresh fruits and vegetables thoroughly with running water to reduce the amount of dirt and bacteria. If appropriate, use a small scrub brush to clean apples, potatoes, cucumbers or other produce in which you eat the outer skin.
  • Pesticide concerns? Peel fruits/vegetables and trim outer leaves of leafy vegetables in addition to washing them thoroughly. Peeling fruits and vegetables may also reduce the amount of nutrients and fiber. Some pesticide residue also collects in fat, so remove fat from meat and the skin from poultry and fish.

For more detailed information about the National Organic Program, visit or call (202) 720-3252.