Is Your Food Really Organic? Does It Matter?

produce at a grocery store

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Key Takeaways

  • New USDA regulations will allow for additional oversight and certification points in the supply chain for organic products.
  • This update comes after several allegations against farmers who try to sell non-organic foods with the USDA organic label.
  • Organic foods are not inherently healthier than conventional foods, so experts say to focus on eating enough of the fruits and vegetables that are affordable and accessible to you.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture updated its regulations last week to tighten regulations around organic products. This update comes after a number of allegations claiming farmers have tried to sell non-organic, or conventional, food with the lucrative white and green USDA “organic” label.

The new rule, set to go into effect on March 20, will allow for additional oversight and certification points in the supply chain. Producers will have a year to comply with the changes.

Cynthia Curl, PhD, MS, an associate professor who focuses on the intersection between agriculture and human health at Boise State University, said the USDA is making an investment in increasing consumer confidence in the organic label.

Currently, there are “100% organic” or “organic” labels, which both require certification. However, products labeled “organic” may contain 5% non-certified organic materials. If the product says “made with organic,” only 70% of the ingredients must be organic. Products marked with “organic ingredients” do not require certification or a minimum amount of organic ingredients.

While these labels will not change, the USDA promises to “strengthen oversight and enforcement of the production, handling, and sale of organic agricultural products.”

Experts say knowing where your food comes from can inform whether the product you buy is truly organic. Generally, you can trust the organic food labels on grocery store shelves. If you check the Price Look Up Code (PLU) on the produce stickers, numbers that start with a 9 typically indicate organic while a 3 or 4 likely means it’s a conventional product, according to Alice Figueroa, MPH, RDN, CDN, a registered dietitian nutritionist and founder of Alice in Foodieland.

You can look up organic farms on the USDA’s Organic Integrity Database, but smaller local farms sometimes simply cannot afford the certification process.

“There are many wonderful farmers at the farmers market and community-supported agriculture projects that use organic practices, without necessarily being labeled as USDA organic,” Figueroa told Verywell in an email.

Is Organic Food More Nutritious Than Conventional Food?

Organic farming may reduce pollution and support soil health, but Curl said there isn’t enough evidence to determine if organic foods are healthier. A new study published in the European Journal of Epidemiology also found no correlation between organic diets and lower cancer risk.

Organic often gets grouped together with other wellness buzzwords like “natural” or “gluten-free,” but none of these terms automatically translate to “healthier.”

“The organic rule didn’t come about from a human health need. The origins of organic agriculture are ecological,” Curl said.

Some people purchase organic products to avoid pesticides, not because they believe organic is more nutritious. Conventional produce may have pesticides, but only small amounts of residue may remain in or on the foods, according to the Environmental Protection Agency.

The real exposure risk is for farmworkers and the communities that live nearby. Regular exposure to pesticides can contribute to headaches, nausea, birth defects, and cancer.

“We have something like 10,000 agricultural workers that are acutely poisoned by pesticides in the U.S. each year,” Curl said. “That’s not happening when we’re not using synthetic pesticides. So for me personally, the ecological reasons and the farmworkers’ health reasons influence my purchasing habits.”

Buying organic alone won’t solve the problem, Curl said, and regulations to eliminate harmful pesticides are an important long-term solution.

“If it makes sense for you and your family to buy organic and reduce your pesticide exposures, I think that can be great,” she said. “But we never want people to be worried and not eat fruits and vegetables.”

What This Means For You

New USDA regulations will help make the organic label even more trustworthy. There isn’t enough evidence to say organic food is any healthier than conventional food, and experts say the most important thing is to just eat enough fruits and vegetables in general.

5 Sources
Verywell Health uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. U. S. Department of Agriculture. About organic labeling.

  2. International Federation for Produce Standards. IFPS PLU codes user’s guide for produce industry.

  3. Andersen JLM, Frederiksen K, Hansen J, et al. Organic food consumption and the incidence of cancer in the Danish diet, cancer and health cohortEur J Epidemiol. 2023;38(1):59-69. doi:10.1007/s10654-022-00951-9

  4. Environmental Protection Agency. Food and pesticides.

  5. Marcelino AF, Wachtel CC, Ghisi NC. Are our farm workers in danger? Genetic damage in farmers exposed to pesticides. Int J Environ Res Public Health. 2019;16(3):358. doi:10.3390/ijerph16030358