Let’s get to the core of the organic apple puzzle. The term “organic” attracts health-conscious consumers. People feel a sense of reassurance and quality when they see the word “organic” listed on their favorite grocery items.
What does organic mean?
The word “organic” refers to the way farmers grow and process agricultural products, such as fruits, vegetables, grains, dairy products, and meat. USDA organic products have strict production and labeling requirements. USDA organic products must meet the following requirements:
- Ingredients and products must be free of methods such as genetic engineering, ionizing radiation, or sewage sludge.
- They must be produced using allowed substances. For example, recycled or reclaimed water from wastewater treatment plants can be used for organic production if the process has been reviewed and approved by the farm operation’s certifier.
- Organic crop production practices include building soil quality by adding compost or manures, rotating crops; use of organic seeds.
- Organic livestock practices include living areas that encourage the health and natural behavior of their animals such as grazing and organic feed.
- Organic processing practices include no commingling (mixing of non-organic with organic), clean and sanitized processing equipment, and managing pests emphasizing prevention over treatment.
- Organic produce must be overseen by a USDA National Organic Program-authorized certifying agent, following all USDA organic regulations.
Organic farming practices are designed to meet the following goals:
- Enhance soil and water quality
- Reduce pollution
- Provide safe, healthy livestock habitats
- Enable natural livestock behavior
- Promote a self-sustaining cycle of resources on a farm
Should you only buy organic?
Despite growing consumer demand for organically produced foods, information based on a systematic review of their nutritional quality is lacking.
On the basis of a systematic review of studies of satisfactory quality, there is no evidence of a difference in nutrient quality between organically and conventionally produced foodstuffs. The small differences in nutrient content detected are biologically plausible and mostly relate to differences in production methods.
For now, don’t dismiss nonorganic produce.
Organic is not necessarily synonymous with natural or health-protective. Organic candy, organic wine, and organic packaged snacks are not necessarily healthier choices than their non-organic counterparts. Candy, wine, and packaged snacks are not ideal food choices even if they have organic labeling.
Don’t judge a veggie by its skin!
Organic fruits and vegetables may actually be deformed and not look like the perfect display fruit we imagine. Inspect your produce for food safety; misshapen produce is usually just a cosmetic flaw and a fun visual to discuss over dinner.
Bruises, Holes and Mold – Oh My! Should I avoid ugly produce with flaws such as bruises or mold?
Bruises happen when produce is dropped or when fruits and veggies are piled or stored on top of one another. Damage occurs just below the surface due to the thin skin. There is not much risk to eating lightly bruised produce. The one exception might be if you plan to make jams, jellies, or other canned goods – this can result in overly soft jams or jellies. The chemical reactions in bruised or over-ripe produce can also contribute to a higher pH or lower acid content of products such as tomato sauce affecting the safety of the final product.
If you notice a large hole in your tomatoes, melons, or zucchini, or if your produce is soft, slimy, or moldy—do not eat.
Best practice is to avoid foods that are significantly affected by mold. The USDA offers a “Moldy Food: When to Use, When to Discard” chart. Here are some examples it gives:
The skinny on organic:
- Eating real food such as fruits and vegetables is health-protective even if it is not labeled organic.
- Unhealthy food choices that are sugar-laden and packaged are still unhealthy despite an organic label.
- Misshapen fruit and veggies are generally cosmetic damage only. Do not consume fruits or veggies that have significant holes, mold, or a slimy feel.
Alan D Dangour, Sakhi K Dodhia, Arabella Hayter, Elizabeth Allen, Karen Lock, Ricardo Uauy, “Nutritional quality of organic foods: a systematic review,” The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition 90, no. 3, (2009): 680–685, doi: 10.3945/ajcn.2009.28041
Diane Wright Hirsch, “Should I eat that?,” University of Connecticut College of Agriculture, Health and Natural Resources Extension, August 6, 2014, https://blog.extension.uconn.edu/tag/bruised-produce/
Xia Wang, Yingying Ouyang, Jun Liu, Minmin Zhu, Gang Zhao, Wei Bao, and Frank B Hu, “Fruit and vegetable consumption and mortality from all causes, cardiovascular disease, and cancer: systematic review and dose-response meta-analysis of prospective cohort studies,” The BMJ, 2014, doi: 10.1136/bmj.g4490
United States Department of Agriculture, “Introduction to Organic Practices,” https://www.ams.usda.gov/sites/default/files/media/Organic%20Practices%20Factsheet.pdf
United States Department of Agriculture, “Molds on Food: Are They Dangerous?,” https://www.fsis.usda.gov/wps/wcm/connect/a87cdc2c-6ddd-49f0-bd1f-393086742e68/Molds_on_Food.pdf?MOD=AJPERES
United States Department of Agriculture, “Organic Labeling,” https://www.ams.usda.gov/rules-regulations/organic/labeling