The Low Down on Buying Organic

Did you miss May’s TalkDiabetes LIVE meeting about buying organic fruits and vegetables? Not to worry!  Here’s a recap:

At the meeting we talked about when it pays to buy organic fruits and vegetables and when you might just be wasting your money.

What does organic mean?
An organic item has been produced through approved methods that integrate cultural, biological and mechanical practices which foster the cycling of resources, promote ecological balance and conserve biodiversity.

Organic SealFarmers must purchase the voluntary organic certification, which is regulated by the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA).

All products which claim to be organic fall into one of three categories:

  • “100% Organic” – made with only organic ingredients
  • “Organic” – made with at least 95% organic ingredients
  • “Made with Organic Ingredients” – must contain at least 70% organic ingredients.

Look for the label on the right when purchasing organic items.

Are organic foods healthier? Safer?
According to an analysis in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, there is no evidence to say that organic produce is healthier than conventional produce. What about safety? The USDA uses the Pesticide Data Program to test and report pesticide residues annually.  Overall our exposure to pesticides from conventional produce is at a safe level, but research has also found that a mother’s exposure to pesticides from pre-conception through breastfeeding may increase a child’s risk for developing health problems. 

If you’re concerned about pesticide residue, you can reduce your exposure by purchasing organic versions of the types of produce that have been found to be highest in pesticide residue.  The Environmental Working Group has termed these items the “Dirty Dozen”.  The “Clean Fifteen” are those products with the least amount of pesticide residue.

Dirty Dozen

Clean Fifteen





Cherry Tomatoes






Hot Peppers












Sweet Bell Peppers


Leafy Greens +


Summer Squash+

Sweet Peas

+ indicates the presence of pesticides discontinued in the 1970s & 80s

Sweet Potatoes

Aside from pesticides, what are other differences between organic and conventional produce?




All natural (must be on approved list)


Any and all; synthetic fertilizer, sewage sludge, irradiation

Use traps or predator insects to reduce pests


Any and all

May have bruising, imperfections



Picked and sold at peak

Nutritional Value

May be picked before ripening


Shelf Life


Poor; not what we’re used to


Very efficient



Near constant, all year long

For animals, conventional farmers can give antibiotics, growth hormones and medications to prevent disease and spur growth. Organic farmers give organic feed and allow animals access to outdoors – they also use preventative measures, like rotational grazing, a balanced diet, and clean housing, to help minimize disease.

Does eating organic cause differences in my blood sugar?
Since there are no nutritional differences in organic and conventionally-farmed produce, treat it all equally!  Remember one serving of fruit (varies for each type) is 15 grams of carbohydrate and 1 serving of vegetables (1 cup raw, ½ cup cooked) is 5 grams of carbohydrate.  Be sure to watch your portion size, especially with fruit.  While fruit is a healthy carb, it still affects blood sugar. 

Keep foods safe, whether organic or not.
Just because organic produce uses natural fertilizers doesn’t mean we don’t have to clean it. Some organic-approved materials include manure and fish emulsion; we definitely don’t want to be eating that!  Be sure to wash any and all produce (even those with rinds) and then dry with a paper towel.  Also be sure to keep ready-to-eat produce away from uncooked meat, chicken, or fish. 

What’s the bottom line?  The health benefits of a diet rich in fruits and vegetables outweigh the risks of pesticide exposure.  Focus on the basics first to eat as nutritiously as possible:

  • Pay attention to which foods you choose to eat every day, organic or not. Pick mostly lean meats and low-fat dairy, lots of fruits and vegetables, whole grains, and more plant-based proteins such as beans, legumes and nuts.
  • Buy seasonal produce; it costs less and is at its peak in freshness and flavor (plus has fewer miles to travel).
  • Support local farmers and reduce your carbon footprint by buying local produce at your grocer or farmers market.
  • Use a produce wash to help remove waxes and pesticides.
  • If your budget allows, buy the “higher risk” produce organic to limit your exposure.

Here are some links for your enjoyment:
Find your local farmer’s market

Try your hand at new recipes

Try out the Pesticide Residue Calculator

If you have a Smart phone, try the Seasonal & Simple app through the University of Missouri Extension. 

We also had some questions asked at the meeting that we wanted to find a little more information on; here are the responses: 

What is the cost of certification to organic farmers?
According to, “when the certification process was first introduced, the NOP estimated certification would cost, on average, $750 per farm In practice, the actual cost varies based on the certifying agency, the size of the farm, and other factors like administrative fees.”  They have additional information on this website as well.  The USDA’s website shows that some states (not MO) can participate in a reimbursement program.  Also, there are foreign and domestic approved certifying agencies.

How often are organically farmed products inspected? (from
Beginning January 1, 2013 organic certifying agents must test samples from at least 5 percent of the operations they certify on an annual basis (called periodic residue testing). The following resources help certifying agents comply with these additional residue testing requirements:

Written by: Kelly Houston, Saint Louis University Dietetic Intern

Dangour, A., Lock, K., Hayter, A., Aikenhead, A., Allen, E., & Uauy, R. (2010). Nutrition-related health effects of organic foods: a systematic review. American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, 92(1), 203-210. doi:10.3945/ajcn.2010.29269

Dantas Ferreira, ,., Cézar Couto, ,., Pombo-de-Oliveira, M. S., & Koifman, S. (2013). In Utero Pesticide Exposure and Leukemia in Brazilian Children < 2 Years of Age. Environmental Health Perspectives, 121(2), 269-275. doi:10.1289/ehp.1103942

Gilboa, S., Desrosiers, T., Lawson, C., Lupo, P., Riehle-Colarusso, T., Stewart, P., & … Correa, A. (2012). Association between maternal occupational exposure to organic solvents and congenital heart defects, National Birth Defects Prevention Study, 1997-2002. Occupational & Environmental Medicine, 69(9), 628-635. doi:10.1136/oemed-2011-100536

The Environmental Working Group’s 2013 Shoppers Guide to Pesticides in Produce


One Response to The Low Down on Buying Organic

  1. judyschmitt says:

    What about cleaning produce with dish detergent? Is this safe and will it get rid of the pesticides? If so, how concentrated?

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: