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by Steph Saullo RDN

April 23, 2018

Choosing food in the grocery store shouldn’t be a struggle

There are more than 40,000 choices in the average grocery store, so navigating the aisles may seem a bit overwhelming. Furthermore, fear-mongering and misinterpretation of scientific studies in food and nutrition articles often causes more confusion. When you’re selecting your sustenance of choice, you may find yourself contemplating whether your food should be organic, natural, or if it even matters. Let’s start by explaining some terms.


The term “organic” refers to the way a food is produced and doesn’t mean anything regarding food safety or nutritional value.

Organic products are produced using only organic-approved chemical pesticides or organic fertilizers. Organic meat requires that animals are raised in living conditions that accommodate the animals’ natural behavior (such as the ability to graze on pasture), fed 100 percent organic feed and forage, and not administered antibiotics or hormones. Regardless of whether the product is organic or not, the USDA prohibits the use of hormones in poultry or pork products. If a product is organic, it is not allowed to include any GMOs or be produced using genetic engineering.

Multi-ingredient foods that are processed must be free from artificial preservatives, colors, or flavors and require that their ingredients are organic, with a few minor exceptions. For example, there are some approved nonagricultural ingredients such as enzymes in yogurt, pectin in fruit jams, or baking soda in baked goods that are approved for use.

The dogma of organic farming practices is to conserve and preserve natural resources and reduce pollution and contamination to the environment (i.e., soil and water). Most organic farms are much smaller in scale compared to conventional farming operations, and organic foods tend to be more expensive.

Conventional (Nonorganic)

For the sake of simplicity, conventional (or nonorganic) is the opposite of organic.

Conventional farming operations are more consistent, tend to yield more crops from year to year, and can more easily meet the demand of the globe’s expanding population. Conventionally grown foods tend to be less expensive.

Concerns about conventional growing practices include overuse of pesticides, potentially greater pesticide residues, antibiotic resistance, and cross-contamination into organic farms. It should be noted there are strict guidelines for use of pesticides. Farmers cannot just use as much as they wish on their crops, and nearly all produce contains less than the maximum pesticide residue allowed by the Environmental Protection Agency.


Many consumers choose products described as natural, but are frequently disappointed to learn that the term natural to describe a food product has not been defined. The term is vague and can mean many things.

The exception is in the case of meat, poultry, and eggs, where natural means that it has only been minimally processed and/or has no artificial ingredients or added color. When natural is used for these foods, the label must include a statement that explains the meaning of the term natural (such as “no artificial ingredients” or “minimally processed”). In recent years, the Food and Drug Administration requested public comments on the use of the term natural on food labeling but has not yet decided to move forward with creating a definition.

So, Which is Better?

Fifty-five percent of adults in the U.S. believe organic produce is healthier than produce that is conventionally grown, according to a Pew Research Center survey. However, conventionally grown foods are no less nutritious than their organic counterparts.

While there is some research that may contradict the previous statement, there is not enough to conclude that organic foods have more nutrients. There are other factors that affect the nutrition of a food, such as ripeness and the nutrient content of the soil. Foods that are organic often carry a health halo (i.e., the food is depicted as always “healthy”); however, organic cake is still cake and is no better or worse than cake that is not organic.

There is no right or wrong way to choose your food. There are valid arguments for the benefits and disadvantages of farming conventionally or organically. Don’t feel guilty about coming home from the grocery store with a bag full of nonorganic food.

To perform your best, your body requires adequate nutrition from the right amount and mix of various foods. Food, whether organically or conventionally grown, will provide you with the nutrition needed. Since both must adhere to food safety standards, the choice to purchase one over the other usually comes down to your budget, availability, and your own values and beliefs about the processes used to produce the food.


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