What does organic mean?

When we talk about ‘organic’, we’re referring to how the food is grown, processed and stored. The standards vary from country to country but, in general, organic food and drink must be grown without:

  • pesticides (limited, natural pesticides only)
  • genetically modified ingredients
  • routine use of antibiotics
  • growth stimulants like hormones
  • artificial colours or preservatives
  • caging animals (only free-range)

There are a number of control bodies who regularly inspect producers, distributors and marketers of organic products to ensure they continue to meet organic standards. These checks are undertaken at least once a year and only the foods that meet the standards are granted an organic certificate. In the UK there are eight approved organic certification bodies, possibly the most well-known being the Soil Association.

Next, check out our quick and healthy meals and read what is the cheapest healthy diet? Plus, find out what counts as five-a-day and if frozen fruits and vegetables are good for you.

Organic fruit and veg market

Can chemicals used on crops end up in food?

Conventionally produced food may, depending on farming practices, have higher levels of pesticides, antibiotics and/or hormones. It could also be argued that conventionally grown food is produced under less regulated growing conditions. That said, organic produce may not always meet consumer expectation, factors including spray drift may result in organic produce, itself, not being completely free from pesticide residues.

It’s also worth remembering that food is not the only source of exposure we have to chemicals. How we garden, where we live, the cleaning products we use in our home and whether we treat our pets for parasites are all potential sources for increasing our chemical burden.

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Is organic food better for you?

Although organic produce has numerous benefits, it’s not necessarily healthier for you.

Views vary, with a number of studies suggesting that as well as carrying fewer pesticides, fresh organic produce may supply more micronutrients such as vitamin C, iron, magnesium and phosphorus, as well as more protective anthocyanins. This is a hotly debated topic and, to date, the evidence is inconclusive, partly due to the fact that organic food production is a broad and complex industry with many variables.

From a health perspective, some believe eating organic food may reduce the risk of allergy and obesity. However, the evidence for this is largely inconclusive because of the many confounding factors, not least that organic consumers tend to have healthier lifestyles. That said, there are some studies which suggest organic dairy may reduce the incidence of allergic dermatitis and help to improve skin health.

What’s more, organic meat and milk are richer in nutrients, including omega-3 fatty acids, with as much as 50 per cent more than conventionally reared livestock. In addition to this, any bacteria found in organic meat is less likely to be resistant to antibiotics.

What organic food should I buy?

Prices are often higher for organic food, so shop wisely to get the most for your budget. Fruit and vegetables are a good place to start.
Make yourself aware of the ‘dirty dozen,’ these are twelve fruit and vegetables containing the highest levels of pesticides. As well as the lowest ranking ‘clean 15’.

The ‘dirty dozen’:

  • Strawberries
  • Spinach
  • Kale
  • Peaches
  • Pears
  • Nectarines
  • Apples
  • Grapes
  • Peppers/chilli
  • Cherries
  • Blueberries
  • Green beans
  • Tomatoes

The ‘clean 15’:

  • Avocado
  • Sweetcorn
  • Pineapple
  • Onions
  • Papaya
  • Peas (frozen)
  • Asparagus
  • Honeydew melon
  • Kiwi
  • Cabbage
  • Mushrooms
  • Mangoes
  • Sweet potato
  • Watermelon
  • Carrots

Is organic food better for the environment?

If you’re concerned about the environment, then organic food may be the right choice for you. With the focus on improving the health of the soil and its fertility, organic practices look to the long-term. Organic farming also encourages wildlife, biodiversity and the work of natural predators to maintain ecological balance.

Does organic food taste better?

It’s not always easy to tell the difference between organic and non-organic produce. There’s generally little to see with the naked eye and, in many cases, the taste may be similar, too. Although, if you source organic fruit and vegetables locally, the superior freshness often results in a notable improvement in flavour.

Selection of fresh vegetables in wire basket

Are there any reasons not to buy organic?

For most families, the major stumbling block to buying organic is the price. In the UK, the organic premium is said to be as much as 89 per cent. Part of the reason for this is the higher cost of production, with farmers relying on more labour-intensive methods of weed and pest control. Organic farms also tend to be smaller with lower output and have the added cost of certification. Seasonality is also an important difference, with the benefit of many conventionally produced foods being available all year round.

The bottom line…

Non-organic foods like fruit, vegetables, wholegrains, legumes and eggs are nutrient-dense and beneficial for our health. It’s far more important to get your five-a-day, and enough lean protein and dairy, than to limit yourself to only organic. Doing so could mean you miss out on a healthy, varied diet.

Getting your minimum five-a-day of fruit and vegetables, whether they’re organic or not, will help supply the vitamins and minerals you need for good health. Fruit and veg are also an excellent source of fibre, which helps support a well-functioning digestive system and balance blood sugar levels.

Do be wary of any processed or high-sugar foods that claim to be organic, such as cakes and biscuits. They may give the impression of being a healthier choice than other sweet treats but it’s rarely the case.

If budgets are tight it’s worth remembering that many small, local producers adopt organic practices but can’t afford the cost of organic certification. You can find many of these producers at local farmer’s markets. Buying locally, from one of these markets, allows you direct access to the producer and all of his/her knowledge of their product.

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This article was reviewed on 20 October 2023 by Kerry Torrens.

Kerry Torrens BSc. (Hons) PgCert MBANT is a registered nutritionist with a post graduate diploma in personalised nutrition & nutritional therapy. She is a member of the British Association for Nutrition and Lifestyle Medicine (BANT) and a member of the Guild of Food Writers. Over the last 15 years she has been a contributing author to a number of nutritional and cookery publications including BBC Good Food.


All health content on bbcgoodfood.com is provided for general information only, and should not be treated as a substitute for the medical advice of your own doctor or any other health care professional. If you have any concerns about your general health, you should contact your local health care provider. See our website terms and conditions for more information.

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