Whether for health reasons, to take better care of the planet or both, many consumers are contemplating going all organic. For most, their goal is to avoid the toxic load on their and their family’s bodies from food. Studies have shown that the pesticides, hormones, antibiotics, chemicals, artificial flavors or colors; genetically-modified organisms; and other non-organic ingredients that have become ubiquitous in conventional (non-organic) foods can be harmful to human health.
Other studies show that organic foods are healthier and more nutritionally dense. That’s because certified organic foods are whole foods that don’t contain any non-organic ingredients. But, that does not include conventional foods that contain a few organic ingredients, so read labels carefully to know the difference. To be certified, that is USDA-organic, foods must meet certain criteria established by the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Make sure labels say “USDA Organic,” not just “contains organic ingredients.”
But, that’s not all you must consider before you go organic. It’s a complex subject that isn’t easy to cover, which is why there are so many articles by reputable sources you should also read. This one is comprehensive but not all-encompassing. It does help answer seven important questions, based on a variety of factors, to determine if this is the right step for you. Also, it will help you get started and stay committed to an all organic food lifestyle.
And, while we’re not offering medical advice, we did ask some experts to help us answer these key questions. The experts include licensed and board certified naturopathic doctor Sue Doyle; registered dietitian and founder of Cooper Nutrition, Christen Cupples Cooper; and, private organic chef and proprietor of Cosmopolitan Delights Terry Ryan to provide us guidance on this process by answering some questions. Here is what they told us.
1. Is it possible to truly go “all organic” with food?
It depends on a variety of factors, including why you're doing it and if you can remain committed, because it can be challenging and pricey. It also depends on the resources available to you, and the support you’ll get in your endeavor if you don’t live alone.
“If you’re eating at home, you can control all of your food there and the food is available to you in your area, yes,” says Ryan, who eats exclusively organic and prepares strictly organic meals for his Tampa, FL clients. “But, if you eat out commercially, it’s nearly impossible,” he continues.
Cooper, who is a doctoral candidate in nutrition at Teachers College, Columbia University, says, “It’s possible but could be difficult.” If you grow your own food and raise your own animals, or shop at stores selling certified organic foods and read every label, “You might be able to accomplish this,” she says. But, if our goal is to get the freshest, high-quality food or to sustain the environment, she says locally grown foods, which don’t have to be shipped hundreds of miles to the eater, might be better. “You can hold local farmers responsible for what’s in your food,” she adds.
Dr. Doyle, who is a graduate of one of four accredited 4-year naturopathic medical school programs in the country, agrees. She says going all organic is possible if you have access to the food and eat primarily whole foods, those that are closest to their natural form like fruits, vegetables and beans. But, she adds, “Can someone eat foods entirely devoid of all pesticide residue? Probably not.”
That’s because of the way foods are packaged, shipped and displayed in stores—often right next to conventionally produced foods that have pesticides. Also, GMO pollen can travel from neighboring fields and contaminate organic farm fields, pesticides can be airborne and irrigation water can be tainted with pesticides. So, while it’s hard to prevent those issues, if you have access to the foods, you can probably go “all organic.”
Key takeaway: It’s possible with the right resources, including access to food to go "all organic."
2. Nutritionally, what’s the first thing someone wanting to go all organic should know?
Well, you must understand the benefits of eating all organic depend on your understanding of what good nutrition is. If you don’t understand what good nutrition is, you’ll need to start there.
Dr. Doyle explains, “If someone switches to an all organic diet and they are eating organic whole fruits and vegetables, legumes, meats, etc., it is likely that their food will be more nutrient dense than their conventional counterparts and they will be decreasing the toxic load on their body.”
Ryan, who is better known as “Chef Terry” and who eats all organic, agrees. “The food will be better quality without the hormones, preservatives, pesticides, additives and other potentially harmful components found in conventional food. In that sense, the food will be better for you,” he explains.
Of those hormones, he says some, like unfermented soy products, are “endocrine disruptors that mimic hormones (like estrogen) and wreak havoc on your body. But, he reminds us that we have to choose the right foods, even if they’re organic to receive the highest nutrition from food.
Ryan, who spends substantial time researching organic food eating and cooking, says that he looks and feels better as well as performs better professionally since he started eating all organic. “I’ve definitely seen profound changes since I stopped putting the toxins from conventional food in my body.”
Cooper also suggests you focus on eating healthy and gives us another consideration for choosing organic foods—the health of the environment. “Organic denotes foods that are produced with the environment—sustainability and conservation—in mind,” she explains.
Key takeaway: Organic doesn't mean better nutrition, unless you eat the right foods.
3. Does “all organic” necessarily mean healthy and is there organic junk food?
It’s important to address this key misconception about organic eating that all of it is healthy and that if it’s organic, it isn’t junk food.
Chef Terry suggests that people examine what “healthy” means to them so they can get to whether going all organic will make them healthy. “If you have poor eating habits before going organic, you’re likely to continue them when you go organic.” You’ll be eliminating the harmful chemical components from your diet but the composition of the food will still be the same, he explains.
Cooper gives some clear examples of what that means. “Many organic products that are not necessarily healthy. An organic potato chip is still a fried, white, processed potato. An organic cheese puff is still has little nutrition. You’re getting little more benefit from an organic candy bar than you are a conventional one. And, if McDonald's came out with an Organic Big Mac, it would still contain a lot of fat, chemicals and empty calories.”
But she also gives clear advice. “Cut the chips, snacks and processed foods from your shopping list and stick to the whole, fresh foods. And, avoid the center aisles in a food store featuring organic food just as you would in any other grocery store."
Dr. Doyle agrees, saying, “I can make a pan of homemade brownies with all organic ingredients and feel the quality of the brownies is significantly higher and more nutritious. But, just because it is all organic, doesn’t mean it is suddenly healthy to eat this sweet for breakfast.”
Key Takeaway: Organic junk food is still junk food. Healthy organic eating means avoiding the processed snacks.
4. Are there certain people who should go organic, if possible?
Whether you should or not depends on specific health issues, your health goals and even your wallet, say our experts. But, it’s also important to do your own research, weigh all the information you receive cautiously and consider carefully whether you should make the switch before you do.
While she wouldn’t say that any specific people should go organic, Cooper did say there are certain foods we should all consider eating organic. “I think we are wise to buy berries, such as strawberries, blueberries and raspberries, which have thin skins that permit the penetration of sprayed pesticides or chemicals, in organic form whenever possible," she states.
Both Dr. Doyle and Chef Terry refer to these foods as among the “Dirty Dozen” based on the list from the Environmental Working Group. And, Chef Terry goes as far as saying, “Everyone should go organic,” and avoid foods on this list. Of course, you should consider the toxins in non-vegetable conventional foods, too, especially if you have health issues.
Of that, Dr. Doyle explains, “Because organic foods tend to be more nutritionally dense and don’t have the chemical load associated with them, there are some populations of people that might benefit including pregnant women, folks with cancer or who are recovering from cancer treatment, folks with multiple chemical sensitivities, and children.”
Key Takeaway: Everyone should consider their own health issues, health goals and the amount you are willing to pay before going organic.
5. What foods should be in the organic kitchen for a balanced diet?
We now know what shouldn’t be in any kitchen, including an organic one, if you’re going to have a healthy diet. But, the experts all agree that you should begin by assessing what’s already there, what conventional foods you eat most often, and by starting to replace those foods with their organic counterparts.
The first thing you must do, says Chef Terry, is “Determine if it’s feasible in the area where you live to replace conventional food with organic food because without those resources, you won’t succeed going all organic.” Once you determine if you can, and your budget can support it, “It’s often as simple as replacing conventional with organic foods,” the chef explains.
He’s a strong advocate for diets abundant in complex carbohydrates like fruits and vegetables over simple carbohydrates like rice, corn and other grains. He says limit sugar and salt and practice protein portion control. “Just because it’s organic doesn’t mean you can eat more of it than conventional foods without similar consequences,” he reminds people.
Cooper agrees that budget and availability play a significant role in what will be in your organic kitchen to start but has is specific advice about what should be there when you do. She states, “They should be the same foods that should be in any kitchen, organic or not: Vegetables, fruits, whole grains, lean protein (especially fish and fatty fish such as salmon), calcium-rich foods (dairy or calcium-fortified non-dairy), fiber-rich foods such as legumes and healthful fats such as those found in nuts and avocados.”
The list that Dr. Doyle provides is similar to Cooper’s and includes brown rice, quinoa, nuts and seeds. She suggests that people start with the Dirty Dozen list and replace like with like. “If they drink non-organic milk, replace it with organic. Do the same with cheeses, crackers, cereals, breads, fruits, and vegetables. I always advocate for a variety of color and texture,” she says.
Key Takeaway: A balanced organic diet contains the same elements and practices as a balanced conventional diet.
6. Where are the best places to buy high-quality, USDA organic foods, and should some be avoided or carefully scrutinized?
You may have noticed that big food companies have entered the organic market offering different options in whole and prepared foods. Your local grocer’s shelves are becoming stocked with these conventional food alternatives. But, it’s still important to know what you’re buying, do your research, read labels and advocate for those foods to be processed with high standards.
While larger food chains and big food stores can dominate the marketplace, smaller can be better when it comes to food stores, and local farmers are a strong alternative, too. Dr. Doyle says, “Smaller health food stores and food coops often carry healthy organic whole and packaged foods as well as foods grown and made locally. Local farm stands often farm with organic practices but are not certified organic due to the high cost of getting the certification.” Of such farms, you should ask questions about their farming practices to make sure they meet the right standards.
“CSA's (Community Supported Agriculture) are a fabulous way to have access to fresh, local and often organic produce,” says Dr. Doyle. These are farms in which you own shares and share the risks and rewards of their business, including a share of the produce grown each season.
Cooper says of stores, “Always ask your grocer about the origins of the foods in the store.” It may not be local, and if it’s a concern of yours, you’ll want to consider the environmental (and additional economic) costs of shipping food across the country or importing organic foods.
A strong advocate for education and personal responsibility with food choices, Chef Terry asserts, “Anyplace you shop should be scrutinized; even the largest and best known organic retailers are not 100% organic. Read the labels and ask questions. It’s most important to become educated and not abdicate responsibility for your health to anyone else, including food growers, manufacturers, and retailers.”
Key Takeaway: Be educated. Know how your organic food is grown and where it comes from before you buy.
7. Are there resources, guides or apps recommended for those “going organic”?
The consensus here was that there are numerous of all three available for those considering going organic. Start with those from the most reputable industry organizations; ask tech savvy or serious organic foodie friends what they use. Research which work for you and consider which organizations, positions or brands the sources represent; and don’t be afraid to question even “the experts.”
Our experts recommend several sources of information, and Cooper says, “Research individual products when in doubt.”
Dr. Doyle and Chef Terry both recommend the Environmental Working Group, which also offers a mobile app called EWG Foodsource that rates foods based on their nutrition, ingredients and processing. It allows you to enter brands by name or scan barcodes then rates the foods on a scale of 1-10 in those areas.
Dr. Doyle also recommends the Organic Consumer’s Association, which she says you can “learn about companies who may be undermining the availability of organic foods and organic farming practices.”
And, Chef Terry recommends reviewing different sources, saying, “You will find opposing views on some.” And some will be controversial. For example, he’s an avid reader of osteopathic physician Dr. Joseph Mercola and blogger Food Babe. But, he also recommends Consumer’s Union, the venerable consumer nonprofit that has a wide variety of articles and reports on food and food safety and is most rigorously researched by respected scientists and professionals.
Key Takeaway: Do your research, become educated about organic food and food issues. Don’t be afraid to question the experts.
The Bottom Line for Going All Organic
There are a number of issues to consider when going all organic, including your budget and your body. Do your research, ask food retailers and producers lots of questions, understand what truly healthy means for you and what it means nutritionally and, where necessary, especially if you have pre-existing health issues, get support from qualified professionals who have the same goals for your health as you do. And, if you decide to go “all organic,” start at a pace that makes sense for you and stick with the process until you reach your goal.