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Lifestyle Tips

Breaking down the latest research on Anti-Inflammatory Nutrition
Written By: Dr. Barry Sears, Ph. D | Creator of the Zone Diet

Written by Mary Perry, MS, RD, LDN
on March 26, 2019

More and more Americans are incorporating organic foods into their regular purchasing habits. Organic foods make up almost 6% of food sales in retail channels across the U.S.(1) and overall sales of organic items hit a new record of $49.4 billion in 2017, up 6.4% from the prior year. Consumer interest in ingredient profiles, how products are grown, how far they’ve traveled and sustainability has led to an increased demand for these products. While organic foods are lower in pesticide residues, the question often arises as to whether they are nutritionally better than foods grown using conventional methods. Here we’ll tell you what you need to know.

What Does Organic Mean? 

According to the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA), organic food is produced without the use of most conventional pesticides and no synthetic ingredients, sewage sludge, bioengineering, or radiation. For meat, poultry, eggs, and dairy products this means that the animals are given no antibiotics or growth hormones. These foods follow strict production and labeling requirements and must comply with the National List of Allowed and Prohibited Substances (National List) and be overseen by a USDA National Organic Program authorized certifying agent (2). One thing to note is that just because something is labeled organic, doesn’t mean it’s pesticide-free. It just means the pesticides used are natural not synthetic. Even organically grown oats recently were shown to contain small yet safe amounts of glyphosate, the chemical used in the weed killer RoundUp. While the foods themselves were produced organically, drifting from near by farms or cross contamination in a processing facility that handles non-organic foods can still impact the final product (3).Organic Vs. Conventional

What to Know When Looking at Labels 

When shopping and looking at labels there are several uses of the word organic you might see. Here’s what’s required in order to use the organic seal or the word “organic” on packaging and labels (2, 4).

100% Organic: A product using this claim must have all the ingredients certified organic and all the processing aids must be organic too. The product labels must list the certifying agent on the information panel

What the Label Can State

  • USDA organic seal and state 100% organic claim
  • No Genetically Modified Organisms (GMOs)
  • Must identify certified organic ingredients
  • Must list certified agent

Organic: When using this claim all agricultural ingredients must be certified organic, except where specified on the National List. Non-organic ingredients allowed from the National List cannot exceed a combined total of 5% (excluding salt and water). The product labels must also list the certifying agent on the information panel

What the Label Can State

  • USDA organic seal and/or organic claim 
  • No GMOs
  • Must identify organic ingredients (non-organic ingredients must comply with National List)
  • Must list certified agent

Made with Organic: When using this claim at least 70% of the product must include certified organic ingredients (excluding salt and water). The rest of the agricultural ingredients don’t have to be organic, but need to follow organic regulations (without conventional pesticides, synthetic ingredients, sewage sludge, bioengineering, or radiation). The non-agricultural products must be on National list and the product labels must list the certifying agent on the information panel

What the Label Can State

  • “Made with Organic” (organic seal not allowed)
  • No GMOs
  • Must identify organic ingredients (non-organic ingredients must comply with National List)
  • Must list certified agent

Specific Organic Ingredients: Products with less than 70% of their ingredients being certified organic (excluding salt and water) don’t need to be certified. These products are unable to include the USDA seal or the word “organic” on the front of their packaging or principal display panel. They can only list those ingredients that are certified organic on their ingredient list. The other ingredients don’t need to follow USDA organic regulations. 

What the Label Can State

  • Ingredient list can state which ingredients are certified organic (USDA organic seal and word “organic” not allow on principal display panel)

Zone Diet Organic Labels

Nutrition: How Organic Compares to Conventional

Health is one of the main reasons consumers purchase organic foods as they are perceived to have greater nutritional value and fewer toxic chemicals compared to those conventionally grown (5). Other reasons that factor into purchasing habits are for environmental reasons, animal welfare, taste, and the health of farmers and their workers.

Conducting studies on the nutrition profiles of organic versus conventional foods isn’t an easy feat. Season, region, differences in ground cover, maturity of the organic operation and variation from farm to farm plays a role (5). Some studies have found no significant difference in nutrition profiles between organic and conventional foods (6). Other studies have shown organic foods may be 4x lower in pesticide residues, lower in antibiotic-resistant bacteria and nitrites along with having higher levels of antioxidants, vitamin C, iron, magnesium, phosphorus and lower concentrations of Cadmium (5-7). More studies have emerged that are food specific showing organic tomatoes to be higher in polyphenols, strawberries to be richer in anthocyanins and antioxidants, and organic dairy to have higher amounts of protein and omega-3 fatty acids (8-11).

So you may be asking yourself, is it time to make the switch? The answer is it’s a personal choice. The reality is Americans are already falling short on their intake of fruits and vegetables with only 1 in 10 meeting the recommended intake (12). Creating more barriers to consumption only hurts us more in the long run. Eating fruits and vegetables whether organic or conventional far outweighs the risks of the pesticides they may contain. Even for conventional produce the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the USDA set limits for the amount of pesticides that can be used on farms to be safe.

From a nutritional standpoint there is literature to support some nutritional gains with regards to antioxidant and polyphenol levels in organic produce. That said, if your produce is just going to sit in your fridge the whole week or used as target practice by your kids or grandkids, it’s probably not worth the expense. The longer food sits in the fridge the more nutrients it loses over time.

If you know you want to start incorporating more organic foods into your diet the list below may be a good place to start. This way you minimize those fruits and vegetables that have soft skins or are more porous and may absorb more of the pesticides used on them compared to those that have peels and are more durable.

Pesticides in Fruits and Vegetables

The Environmental Working Group is an organization that has created a ranking system of fruits and vegetables based on their likelihood of being contaminated with the highest levels of pesticides. The ranking is established after the fruits and vegetables have been washed or peeled. The top offenders include those that have soft skins because they are more likely to absorb pesticides, which they term the “Dirty Dozen” (13).
This year’s "Dirty Dozen" includes:

  1. strawberries
  2. spinach
  3. kale
  4. nectarines
  5. apples
  6. grapes
  7. peaches
  8. cherries
  9. pears
  10. tomatoes
  11. celery
  12. potatoes

The good news is that there are a good number of non-organic fruits and vegetables without high levels of pesticides. Since many fruits and vegetables have peels, they offer a higher level of protection, which have been dubbed the “Clean 15” since they have little to no pesticides (13).

This year's "Clean 15" include:

  1. avocados
  2. sweet corn
  3. pineapples
  4. frozen sweet peas
  5. onions
  6. papayas
  7. eggplant
  8. asparagus
  9. kiwi
  10. cabbage
  11. cauliflower
  12. cantaloupe
  13. broccoli
  14. mushrooms
  15. honey dew

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Ways to Reduce the Pesticide Levels in Your Fruits and Vegetables

If you don’t have the luxury of buying organic, there are things you can do to lessen the amounts of pesticides you take in. Here are some tips from the National Pesticide Information Center (14).

  • Eat a variety of fruits and vegetables to minimize the potential of increased exposure to a single pesticide.
  • Thoroughly wash all produce whether it’s labeled organic or has a peel.
  • Wash your produce under running water instead or soaking or dunking it.
  • Dry produce with a clean cloth towel or paper towel when possible.
  • Scrub firm fruits and vegetables, like melons and root vegetables.
  • Discard the outer layer of leafy vegetables, such as lettuce or cabbage.
  • Peel fruits and vegetables when possible.
  • Trim fat and skin from meat, poultry, and fish to minimize pesticide residue that may accumulate in the fat.

Minimize Cost and Maximizing Nutrition

Buying fruits and vegetables in season whether organic or conventional can help save on costs. Buying local produce and using fruits and vegetables soon after purchase is a way to maximize their nutritional benefits. In addition you may find your local farmers market is cheaper than some grocery stores for organic items. Farmers markets are also a great want to talk to representatives from local farms about their pest management whether it's integrated pest management (no spraying unless tests show pest infestation), following organic practices or certified organic so you can be the most informed.


  1. Organic Industry Survey. Available at: https://ota.com/resources/organic-industry-survey. Accessed: 8/3/2018.
  2. Labeling Organic Products. Available at: https://www.ams.usda.gov/sites/default/files/media/Labeling%20Organic%20Products%20Fact%20Sheet.pdf. Accessed: August 6, 2018. 
  3. Roundup for Breakfast? Weed Killer in Landmark Cancer Verdict Found in Kids’ Cereals, Other Oat-Based Foods. Available at: https://www.ewg.org/release/roundup-breakfast-weed-killer-landmark-cancer-verdict-found-kids-cereals-other-oat-based#.W3wq4M5KjIU. Accessed: August 21, 2018.
  4. Organic Labels Explained. Available at: https://www.ams.usda.gov/sites/default/files/media/OrganicLabelsExplained.png. Accessed: August 6, 2018.
  5. Crinnion WJ. Organic foods contain higher levels of certain nutrients, lower levels of pesticides, and may provide health benefits for the consumer. Altern Med Rev. 2010 Apr;15(1):4-12. Review.
  6. Smith-Spangler C, Brandeau ML, Hunter GE, Bavinger JC, Pearson M, Eschbach PJ, Sundaram V, Liu H, Schirmer P, Stave C, Olkin I, Bravata DM. Are organic foods safer or healthier than conventional alternatives?: a systematic review. Ann Intern Med. 2012 Sep 4;157(5):348-66.
  7. Barański M, Srednicka-Tober D, Volakakis N, Seal C, Sanderson R, Stewart GB, Benbrook C, Biavati B, Markellou E, Giotis C, Gromadzka-Ostrowska J, Rembiałkowska E, Skwarło-Sońta K, Tahvonen R, Janovská D, Niggli U, Nicot P, Leifert C. Higher antioxidant and lower cadmium concentrations and lower incidence of pesticide residues in organically grown crops: a systematic literature review and meta-analyses. Br J Nutr. 2014 Sep 14;112(5):794-811
  8. Vallverdú-Queralt A, Jáuregui O, Medina-Remón A, Lamuela-Raventós RM. Evaluation of a method to characterize the phenolic profile of organic and conventional tomatoes. J Agric Food Chem. 2012 Apr 4;60(13):3373-80.
  9. Fernandes VC1, Domingues VF, de Freitas V, Delerue-Matos C, Mateus N. Strawberries from integrated pest management and organic farming: phenolic composition and antioxidant properties. Food Chem. 2012 Oct 15;134(4):1926-31. doi: 10.1016/j.foodchem.2012.03.130. Epub 2012 Apr 9
  10. Kristl J1, Krajnc AU, Kramberger B, Mlakar SG. Strawberries from integrated and organic production: mineral contents and antioxidant activity. Acta Chim Slov. 2013;60(1):19-25.
  11. Palupi E1, Jayanegara A, Ploeger A, Kahl J. Comparison of nutritional quality between conventional and organic dairy products: a meta-analysis. J Sci Food Agric. 2012 Nov;92(14):2774-81.
  12. Disparities in State-Specific Adult Fruit and Vegetable Consumption — United States, 2015. Available at: https://www.cdc.gov/mmwr/volumes/66/wr/mm6645a1.htm?s_cid=mm6645a1_w. Accessed: August 8, 2018.
  13. Shoppers Guide to Pesticides and Produce. https://www.ewg.org/foodnews/full-list.php. Accessed: March 25, 2019.
  14. Minimizing Pesticide Residues in Food. Available at: http://npic.orst.edu/health/foodprac.html. Accessed: August 7, 2018

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