What is organic food?
Food that is labeled "organic" has been grown or raised without synthetic chemical fertilizers, pest killers (pesticides), weed killers (herbicides), hormones, or drugs. Synthetic means that they are made in a lab.
This means that farmers and ranchers who grow organic food:
- Use only natural pest killers, such as plant oils, soap, fungus-eating bacteria, or bugs that eat other bugs.
- Use only natural fertilizers, such as manure or compost.
- Feed their animals only organic food.
- Don't give their animals antibiotics or growth hormones.
- Don't use genetically modified organisms (GMOs). GMOs are plants or animals whose genetic material has been altered using genetic engineering.
- Don't use irradiation, which means using X-rays or other types of rays to kill pests, change the way plants grow, or keep vegetables and fruits from spoiling as fast.
Some countries, including the United States, have rules that govern when a farmer or rancher may use the organic label. Before a grower can use that label, a government inspector goes to the farm to make sure that the rules are being followed.
Don't assume that food labeled "natural," "sustainable," "hormone-free," or "free-range" is organic. Look for the USDA organic seal.
What do you need to know about organic food?
You may have these questions about organic food:
- Is it safer? Foods with the organic label have less pesticide residue compared with most nonorganic foods. Foods grown with pesticides can have small amounts of pesticide left on the food when it gets to the store. There is not enough evidence to know if the small amount on nonorganic foods can cause harm.footnote 1
- Is it more nutritious? There is not enough evidence to say that organic food is more nutritious than nonorganic food.footnote 1
- Is it better for children? Children may be more sensitive than adults to pesticides and other chemicals because they are still growing. But there is not enough evidence to say that organic food is better for children.footnote 1
How can you reduce exposure to chemicals?
Food grown with pesticides can have small amounts of pesticide left on the food when it gets to the store.
If you are concerned about pesticides on your food, here are some steps you can take:footnote 2
- Wash raw fruits and vegetables under running water before eating them. Use a scrub brush and then rinse the food.
- Peel vegetables such as carrots and fruits such as apples. Peeling will remove pesticides that are on the peel, but also removes fiber, vitamins, and minerals.
- Throw away the outer leaves of head lettuce and cabbage.
- Committee on Nutrition, and Council on Environmental Health (2012). Organic foods: Health and environmental advantages and disadvantages. Pediatrics, 130(5): 2012–2579. DOI:10.1542/peds.2012-2579. Accessed June 11, 2015.
- Whitney E, Rolfes SR (2013). Consumer concerns about foods and water. Understanding Nutrition, 13th ed., pp. 623–651. Belmont, CA: Wadsworth.
Other Works Consulted
- Dodd JL (2012). Behavioral-environmental: The individual in the community. In LK Mahan et al., eds., Krause's Food and the Nutrition Care Process, 13th ed., pp. 229–250. St Louis: Saunders.
- Environmental Working Group (2015). EWG's 2015 shopper's guide to pesticides in produce. Environmental Working Group. http://www.ewg.org/foodnews/summary.php. Accessed June 11, 2015.
- U.S. Department of Agriculture (2008). National Organic Program: Background and history. Available online: http://www.ams.usda.gov/AMSv1.0/getfile?dDocName=STELDEV3004443&acct=nopgeninfo.
- Whitney E, Rolfes SR (2011). Consumer concerns about foods and water. In Understanding Nutrition, 12th ed., pp. 647–682. Belmont, CA: Wadsworth.
Current as of: August 21, 2019
Author: Healthwise Staff
Kathleen Romito MD - Family Medicine
Adam Husney MD - Family Medicine
Rhonda O'Brien MS, RD, CDE - Certified Diabetes Educator
Current as of: August 21, 2019