If you are focused on optimizing personal health while eating high quality and sustainable foods, it can be difficult to determine how best to spend your money in an ever changing and often overwhelming food marketplace. Increasingly, we’re told that achieving these objectives is as simple as following these rules: Buy organic, buy non-GMO, buy local. But what do these terms really mean? In a three-part series, we will discuss the labeling found in today’s marketplace to help you decipher food labeling, understand the available options and make informed decisions., Today, let’s begin by reviewing what it means when something is labeled  organic.

USDA Organic: Foods with this label must be grown according to the regulations developed by the National Organic Program (NOP). If an item is labeled as USDA Organic, then the consumer knows that the farmer has been inspected and met organic production standards. Organic producers must rely on natural processes and materials and avoid the use of synthetic fertilizers and pesticides, sewage sludge, irradiation, and genetic engineering (no genetically modified organisms, GMOs, allowed). To achieve organic meat and dairy standards, the animals must be provided natural habitats including access to the outside, freedom of movement, 100% certified organic feed, and there must be no use of antibiotics or added growth hormones. Regulations prohibit organically processed foods from containing artificial preservatives, colors, or flavors.

On one hand, this appears straightforward, but there is a bit more ambiguity that we need to address. Even within the USDA Organic labeling system, there are three distinct sub-categories used to distinguish organic foods:

  1. 100% Organic – contain only ingredients that are certified organic
  2. Organic – contain no less than 95% certified organic ingredients
  3. “Made With” Organic – contain at least 70% certified organic ingredients, the remaining ingredients are produced without prohibited practices such as genetic engineering (no GMOs)

Meats, eggs, milk, and produce are either 100% organic or not organic at all, while the other two categories can be applied to processed foods and food mixtures.

Unless you know the farmer and their practices, always choose organic meat, eggs, and dairy (if part of your diet). There is no reason to mess with potentially ingesting hormones and antibiotics. Not to mention, the factory-farm settings, living standards, and treatment of animals on non-organic farms.

From a nutritional value, organic produce has been found to have slightly higher levels of nutrients when compared to those that were conventionally grown. Plus, crops grown without pesticides means fewer harmful chemical substances in soil and water, and lower levels of pesticides consumed by those choosing to eat certified organic produce. The chemicals in pesticides have been associated with a large number of negative health effects including dermatological, gastrointestinal, neurological, carcinogenic, respiratory, reproductive, and endocrine. Glyphosate is the most commonly used weed killer in current agriculture and the active ingredient in Roundup. It disrupts the pathway of human gut bacteria, damaging protein structures known as tight junctions in the gut and other membranes in the body. Due to its effects on gut permeability, glyphosate may be the cause of increased prevalence of gluten intolerance in the United States, amongst other health problems.

Still, buying everything organic can be both challenging and potentially cost prohibitive. To help prioritize spending on organic produce, start with the “Dirty Dozen.” These 12 conventional produce items have the highest amounts of contamination from pesticides: strawberries, spinach, nectarines, apples, peaches, pears, cherries, grapes, celery, tomatoes, sweet bell peppers, and potatoes. On the other end, the “Clean Fifteen,” have been found to have the lowest levels of pesticide residue: sweet corn, avocados, pineapples, cabbage, onions, sweet peas, papayas, asparagus, mangos, eggplant, honeydew melon, kiwi, cantaloupe, cauliflower, and grapefruit.

It should be noted that washing and peeling produce cannot completely remove pesticides. In a nutshell, buy organic whenever possible. Up next, we’ll discuss genetically modified organisms (GMOs), the label “Non GMO Project Verified,” and the risks associated with GMOs for our future food marketplace.


  1. https://www.ams.usda.gov/grades-standards/organic-standards
  2. https://www.ewg.org/foodnews/dirty_dozen_list.php#.WmlpgRNSzrc
  3. https://www.ewg.org/foodnews/clean_fifteen_list.php#.WpHwBxPwbrc
  4. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4947579/
  5. Nestle, M. What To Eat. New York: North Point Press, 2006.