Organic 101


Recent years have seen a significant rise in "organic" produce - defined by the United States Environmental Protection Agency as food that is grown and processed without using synthetic fertilizers or pesticides. But is organic produce really a healthier choice? In fact, a meta-analysis of 240 reports comparing organically and conventionally grown food, found that organic foods, due to lower chemical contamination, are safer for consumption than their conventionally grown counterparts. And it stands to reason that ingesting fewer toxins is healthier than the alternative.

Research has shown that conventional farming methods introduce toxins into your diet and body, which can cause health problems, and they destroy nutrients in foods by ruining soil quality. Excessive pesticide and herbicide use contaminates ground water, ruins soil structures and promotes erosion. Growing produce in nutrient depleted soil diminishes the nutritional content of the produce. Alternatively, organic farming methods pay close attention to maintaining and maximizing soil quality, thereby increasing the nutrient levels of the foods grown in it, making them healthier than conventionally grown foods.

The Environmental Working Group, a nonprofit organization working to protect human and environmental health, publishes the Dirty Dozen Plus and the Clean Fifteen, based on years of independent research on chemical levels of produce. The Dirty Dozen Plus lists the conventionally grown produce that tests highest in levels of contamination from pesticides and other harmful chemicals. Green beans, kale and collard greens have been added to the list because of their likelihood of containing highly toxic organophosphate insecticides. Alternately, the Clean Fifteen is the list of produce with the lowest pesticide content.

The Clean Fifteen

  1. Onions
  2. Sweet corn
  3. Pineapples
  4. Avocado
  5. Asparagus
  6. Sweet peas
  7. Mangoes
  8. Eggplant
  9. Domestic cantaloupe
  10. Kiwi
  11. Cabbage
  12. Watermelon
  13. Sweet potatoes
  14. Grapefruit
  15. Mushrooms

The Dirty Dozen

  1. Apples
  2. Celery
  3. Sweet bell peppers
  4. Peaches
  5. Strawberries
  6. Spinach
  7. Nectarines
  8. Grapes
  9. Lettuce
  10. Cucumbers
  11. Blueberries
  12. Potatoes

Plus green beans, kale
and collard greens.

So, how do you know if something is really organic? The easiest way to tell is by the USDA "certified organic" stamp on packaging and label stickers. Many small, local farmers are following strict organic practices yet do not exhibit the USDA organic stamp. Getting to know the producers of your food is another way to ensure you are buying organic. Educate yourself and watch for creative marketing ploys known as "greenwashing." Greenwashing is a marketing tactic that uses consumer-tested colors, typeface and other visual cues, including pictures and graphics, to trick people into thinking products are organic. Companies have been found to abuse this tactic, using blatant false advertising containing words such as "100 percent organic," "organic," or "made with organic ingredients," but this practice was banned in the U.S. in October 2002.

Quick Tips for Healthy Produce Shopping:

  • Buy from a local, organic farmer.
  • Choose organic in your local grocery store when buying anything on the Dirty Dozen list.
  • Save money by purchasing non-organic varieties of the Clean Fifteen.
  • With Spring on its way, visit your farmers market (make sure to ask about their growing practices).
  • Stay informed by visiting the Environmental Working Group online.


  • Crinnion WJ. 2010. "Organic foods contain higher levels of certain nutrients, lower levels of pesticides, and may provide health benefits for the consumer." Alternative Medicine Review: a Journal of Clinical Therapeutic. 15 (1): 4-12.
  • Crinnion, Walter. 2010. Clean, green, and lean: get rid of the toxins that make you fat. Hoboken, N.J.: John Wiley.
  • Pesticides and Food: What "Organically Grown" Means. United States Environmental Protection Agency.
  • EWG's Shoppers Guide to Pesticides in Produce 2013. Environmental Working Group.
  • Photo: cherrycoke/

Image Attribution: cherrycoke/