Q. Organic—or Not? Is Organic Produce Healthier Than Conventional?

By Marissa Lippert, M.S., R.D., EatingWell In Season: The Farmers' Market Cookbook (2009)

Organic—or Not? Is organic produce healthier than conventional?

A. There are at least two good arguments for eating organic: fewer pesticides and more nutrients. Let’s start with pesticides. Pesticides can be absorbed into fruits and vegetables, and leave trace residues. The Environmental Working Group (EWG), a nonprofit, nonpartisan organization, pored over the results of nearly 51,000 USDA and FDA tests for pesticides on 44 popular produce items and identified the types of fruits and vegetables that were most likely to have higher trace amounts. Most people have no problems eating conventionally grown produce but if you feel strongly about pesticide residues, the EWG’s list below should help you shop.

As for nutrients, in 2007 a study out of Newcastle University in the United Kingdom reported that organic produce boasted up to 40 percent higher levels of some nutrients (including vitamin C, zinc and iron) than its conventional counterparts. Additionally, a 2003 study in the Journal of Agricultural and Food Chemistry found that organically grown berries and corn contained 58 percent more polyphenols—antioxidants that help prevent cardiovascular disease—and up to 52 percent higher levels of vitamin C than those conventionally grown. Recent research by that study’s lead author, Alyson Mitchell, Ph.D., an associate professor of food science and technology at the University of California, Davis, pinpoints a potential mechanism to explain why organic techniques may sometimes yield superior produce.

It’s a difference in soil fertility, says Mitchell: “With organic methods, the nitrogen present in composted soil is released slowly and therefore plants grow at a normal rate, with their nutrients in balance. Vegetables fertilized with conventional fertilizers grow very rapidly and allocate less energy to develop nutrients.” Buying conventional produce from local farmers also has benefits. Nutrient values in produce peak at prime ripeness, just after harvest. As a general rule, the less produce has to travel, the fresher and more nutrient-rich it remains.

A 2008 review by the Organic Center of almost 100 studies on the nutritional quality of organic produce compared the effects conventional and organic farming methods have on specific nutrients. The report’s conclusion: “Yes, organic plant-based foods are, on average, more nutritious.”

Bottom line: “Eating more fresh fruits and vegetables in general is the point,” says Mitchell. If buying all organic isn’t a priority—or a financial reality for you—you might opt to buy organic specifically when you’re selecting foods that are most heavily contaminated with pesticide and insecticide residues. See next page for a handy chart for common fruits and vegetables.


Preferably Organic
—Most Commonly Contaminated*

If Budget Allows, Buy Organic

It’s Your Call
—Least Commonly Contaminated

  • Apples
  • Celery
  • Strawberries
  • Peaches
  • Spinach
  • Nectarines
  • Grapes
  • Sweet Bell Peppers
  • Potatoes
  • Blueberries
  • Lettuce
  • Kale/Collard Greens
  • Green Beans
  • Summer Squash
  • Peppers
  • Cucumbers
  • Raspberries
  • Grapes - Domestic
  • Plums
  • Oranges
  • Cauliflower
  • Tangerines
  • Bananas
  • Winter Squash
  • Cranberries
  • Onions
  • Sweet Corn
  • Pineapples
  • Avocado
  • Asparagus
  • Sweet Peas
  • Mangoes
  • Eggplant
  • Cantaloupe
  • Kiwi
  • Cabbage
  • Watermelon
  • Sweet Potato
  • Grapefruit
  • Mushrooms

*Listed in order of pesticide load
Source: Environmental Working Group. Go to for updates. Updated June 2011.


I have been "living" organic and low chemical for about two years now. I started slowly, replacing the chemical things in my house and kitchen. I read the labIes of everything before I buy it, avoiding things like laureth sulfates, sodium lauryl and parabands in bath stuff, makeup and cleaning products. I go out of my way to drive to a store that has a good stock of organic veggies and fruits. I figured it was worth mentioning that it is not only what we eat, but all those "safe" chemicals that we absorbed through our skin that makes a difference. I'm not as fanatical as I sound, but I try to live healthier. And to the guy who said organic farming is ruining the croplands due to low harvest, I have a very small tomato garden with tons of tomatoes without the use of pesticides that would kill not only the bugs, but the wildlife and birds that frequent my yard. organic also doesn't contaminate the water that the wildlife needs to live.


08/27/2010 - 8:22pm

I'm in So Cal, what are the best foods I can grow myself here and is there a good resource on line for the set up and management of the typical small family sized garden? I do have coyotes that chew on our sprinklers and damage them, I have gophers and moles and rabbits that ruin just about everything so I have a lot of pests. I don't have a lot of time but I sure have a lot of land and the wiliness to try. I did buy a tomato plant already in a large pot with a cage, and recently discovered a very fat and large caterpillar of some sort on it. I removed the creature because I assumed it was there to eat my plant and disposed of it. I haven't had to spray it yet with anything and don't want to. Still the tomatoes are growing sooo slowly and are on the soft side (I think) but they say they are suppose to be really large when they are ready. They are a nice bright red color and a little soft. I would think they'd be harder and green when they are still growing, but they look like they're ready but are way too small compared to the description on the tag. I mean, they are really small, like about 1 1/2 - 2 inches and they say they're supposed to get to be 2 lbs in weight! And no, they're not cherry tomatoes, those are round, these are bigger than those and not round. Thanks!


09/26/2010 - 6:45pm

I am 82 years old and try to buy organic as often as possible. We have only one "Health Food" (?) Store in our town and their prices are very high. We do have a Safeway store, which now carries their own brand of Organic called "O" and it carries the green & white USDA seal of "approval" and all items listed in the "O" brands are prefaced with the word "Organic" -- however then in bolder letters the message most often seen is "Manufactured In a company that also manufactures products such as SOY, WHEAT, and PEANUTS. The soy, wheat an peanuts are not listed as "organic" so what is one to do? Also there often is a long carbon trail on such things as "organic" bananas from Chile or Ecuador. I wish we had a Whole Foods store in a nearby City. I like the advice of buying local, but at our Thurs. Local Farmers' Mkt. I seldom find Organic produce. At least they are honest when you ask them if their veggies and fruits are Organic. Most say they are not. BUT they are local --- so that makes them better than being Organic? I don't think so.


09/26/2010 - 8:51pm

well I am 80 and in great shape, lived in korea 3 monts, japan 2 years, france 4 years and
traveled europe asia and africa; and I studied how and what people eath, japonise for lunch white rice with a very small piece of fishand no sweet that was 1952-3 and din't see any fat japonise
secret no sugor


10/23/2010 - 5:48pm

organic produce really doesnt matter thats why they invented sinks and other things to wash foods off... so i really dont believe in organic foods. i have been eating non organic produce all my life and have never gotten sick over it or anything so organic food doesnt bother me... WHO CARES!!!!!!


03/04/2012 - 9:29pm

for those who never buy organic because they can wash off the pesticides with water...there is a little more to it than that!! Organic soil is more nutrient dense and not contaminated with pesticides. Even on foods where we don't eat the covering like bananas and pineapples, the pesticides are absorbed into the food while growing!!


03/09/2012 - 3:33pm

Look at Cuba everything is grown organic there and people live past there 90s and cancer and diabetes is almost unheard in that land.Look at us because of pesticides-cancer and diabetes is on the rise. I am sure someone you know already has it.I buy organic whenever i can.The old school way of doing things is the best when it comes to precious food!


03/12/2012 - 5:02pm

Buying Organic Foods:
If your food budget is tight like many of us and you want to eat organic but can't afford to buy all organic; here's an idea..... Buy those items that you most eat example: If you eat cereals daily then buy organic cereal & milk same goes for if you eat bread, salad or fruit on a daily bases. By eating these few organic foods you are Adding more nutrition to your diet: resulting in better health; reducing your carbon footprint; therefore helping to save our environment. Every little bit of organic foods you eat has a huge impact on overall health. Also, eat veggy's and fruits raw when possible for the best nutrition and take into consideration what you are drinking daily (the consumption of liquids is often left out of the organic equation).
Organic is good for all.
Pet Bistro


03/13/2012 - 6:00am

I'll be 60 before the end of the year. Will I benefit now by eating ONLY organic? Or has the damage already been done?


03/18/2012 - 7:05pm

I'm 74 yrs. old, my diet has consisted mostly of fruits and veggie, I eat almost NO red meat, very little chicken, and some salmon. This has been my diet most of my life.Organic food has not been a big issue in my life so far. I do not like sugar of any kind and will not eat fried or fast food like burgers and chips. Have been to a fast food chain MAYBE,three times in my life, can't stand the stinky smell in those places. Sugar is the culprit of alot of the illnesses that exist in this day and age.
Organic food may play an important part in ones diet if they are babies or growing children. Children in the age group of 3-12 should not be fed carbonated drinks, neither should they be frequenting fast food chains. Parents are the teachers in a childs life and they are the responsible party to teach their children how to eat healthily. Organic may have some play in these children's lives but parents have a bigger part in teaching these how to eat. Organic has not yet been completely proven to be the answer to the food chain.


06/06/2012 - 5:23pm

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