Organic Produce: The Facts

Organic produce is not necessarily more nutritious than conventional, but other factors may influence purchasing decisions.


The U.S. Department of Agriculture, which regulates labelling of organic foods, says organic fruits and vegetables must be grown without the use of most synthetic fertilizers, pesticides, and herbicides, and the seeds cannot be genetically engineered. Surveys done over the years show that organic produce is often (but not always) more costly to grow and thus more expensive than conventional produce. There are a number of factors to consider when deciding whether or not to buy organic produce.

Nutrition: All fruits and vegetables (fresh or frozen, cooked or raw, organic or conventional) are good choices from a nutrition standpoint (especially compared to much of the food supply). Many factors impact the nutrient content of produce, including soil quality, ripeness at harvest, time from harvest to consumption, storage and transport conditions, and cooking methods (which can increase or decrease nutrient availability). So there is no sureway to know whether that organic carrot is more nutritious than its conventional counterpart. Research on the subject varies, and more research is needed. Some studies, for example, have found higher concentrations of antioxidants in organically grown fruits and vegetables, or more diversity of beneficial bacteria in organic vs. conventional apples. Importantly, these differences appear small and unlikely to be very consequential in the context of a healthy dietary pattern.

Pesticide Free? “Organic producers use pesticides—they just use very different types and less,” says Timothy Griffin, PhD, an associate professor and chair of the Division of Agriculture, Food and Environment at the Friedman School of Nutrition Science and Policy. “The concentration of pesticide residue on organic fruits and vegetables is substantially lower than that of conventional produce, but it is usually not zero.” For example, organic foods could potentially have residue from pesticide drift from nearby farms.

Pesticide applicators, farm workers, and farmers are at greatest risk for negative effects associated with pesticide exposure, which include higher risk of Parkinson’s disease, type 2 diabetes, and non-Hodgkin lymphoma according to a review of studies published in 2017 in Environmental Health. “Consumers can get low exposure over a long period,” says Griffin, “but it’s relatively rare to see pesticide exposure from food at a level that would cause concern.” Beyond potential impact to human health, certain pesticides pose risks to other organisms that are unintentionally exposed, and the environment.

The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) sets the maximum amount of pesticide residue permitted to remain on or in produce for human safety. Some advocacy groups, like the Environmental Working Group (EWG), feel the EPA levels are too high. To help consumers make informed choices, EWG annually publishes the “Dirty Dozen” and “Clean 15,” consumer guides that identify which conventionally-grown fruits and vegetables have the highest and lowest levels of pesticide residue (available at

Whether one buys organic or conventionally-grown produce, washing is essential. Washing removes not only pesticides, but also dirt and microbes. Simply rinsing produce under running tap water removed 10 to 40 percent of pesticide residues in a recent study. Hard produce like apples can be scrubbed with a brush, while swishing delicate fruits and vegetables, like berries, in clean water helps remove residues and harmful bacteria. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention does not recommend use of soap to wash produce, as soap residue is a contaminant in its own right.

To date, the health implications of current pesticide exposures from conventional fruits and vegetables are unclear. “Since the 1980s, we have seen again and again that people who eat more fruits and vegetables have lower risk of heart disease, stroke, diabetes, cancers, and many other chronic diseases,” says Dariush Mozaffarian, MD, DrPH, dean of the Friedman School and Editor-in-Chief of Tufts Health & Nutrition Letter. “The vast majority of these have been conventionally grown. It’s possible organic produce is even more beneficial, but if the choice is between conventionally grown fruits and veggies or none at all, choose the fruits and veggies.”

Ultimately, a decision to buy organic versus conventional produce depends on what you are trying to achieve. Reducing pesticide residue, supporting the environment, and buying more produce for your dollar can all be factors to consider. It may help to know that, where consuming fruits and vegetables is concerned, there is no wrong choice for your health.

Take Charge!

Use these tips to help decide if organic produce is for you:

-KNOW THE DIFFERENCE. Organic produce is grown without use of most chemical pesticides, fertilizers, and herbicides; and may use more sustainable farming methods.

-MINIMIZE PESTICIDES. Pesticide residue is lower in organic fruits and vegetables. Washing both organic and conventional produce is important to help remove pesticides, dirt, and bacteria. EAT! All fruits and vegetables are nutritious, whether organic or conventional.


  1. I would never wash fruits/veggies with soap (!!) but what about a fruit and vegetable wash that says “safe removal of waxes, chemicals and soil” on the bottle? I’m looking at my bottle of Veggie Wash right now.

  2. I have seen European studies measuring pesticides in double blind randomized, crossover studies and the pesticide levels in humans were significantly lower in people eating organic foods and became more elevated when switched over to nonorganic food. Many pesticides are possibly carcinogenic, estrogenic, neurotoxic, or have other unwanted side effects. I grew up in the era when we’re were told DDT and lead arsenate were safe. Furthermore, studies often measure macronutrients and not micronutrients, and if you are honest, we are not even sure how all micronutrients work either isolated or in combination with other nutrients. Examine the soil of heavily fertilized, pesticide sprayed, and tilled soil and compare that to organic, non tilled, crop rotated soil. Soil experts admit they poorly understand the organisms in topsoil, how they contribute to plant health, and nutrition, but they can tell you that the soil in most modern farms are severely depleted in microorganisms. In fact we are lucky to find macro-organisms. We are really lacking expertise. Therefore, would it not be wise to eat organic where possible and nonorganic where necessary, whether due to season, locality, cost, and safe measures of preservation?

  3. I wash fruits and vegetables with soap (and rinse them) when the skin is inedible – oranges, bananas, avocados, mangoes, some winter squashes. I figure that lessens the chance of any water-insoluble herbicides, pesticides, bacteria or viruses getting onto the produce when I cut into it or it bumps up against skin-edible produce in the refrigerator.

  4. Nice article except it doesn’t clarify that only approximately 1% of US crop land is certified organic. Therefore, it is simply impossible to supply the United States with any significant amount of organic produce unless or until systematic changes are made

  5. Wow!
    This article completely ignores the health consequences of downstream pollution from conventionally grown produce. From pesticide and fertilizer runoff and soil leaching into waterways and groundwater, to the destruction of complex soil microbiomes, pollinators and birds. All of which has long term extremely unhealthy consequences.
    This sounds like a promotion piece for corporate farming. How profoundly short-sighted.

  6. For me, one of the most important considerations is taste. Organic carrots taste amazing, so much better than their conventional brethren. I don’t buy all organic produce, but I’ll pay extra for organic carrots, celery, potatoes, apples and strawberries.

  7. Yes, buy organic whenever possible, first and foremost to protect the environment and the health of everyone, not just ourselves.


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