What You Should Know About Organic,
Natural and Conventional Foods

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Raffy Hovanessian, MD
Kim Hekimian, PhD  



You've most likely noticed the labels of organic or natural on many foods in the grocery store. What do these terms mean? Why do these foods cost more? Are they better for your family? 

You've seen the labels, but what do they mean?

Fortunately, we have nutritionists Knarig Khatchadurian, PhD, RD, Tsolig Shahinian, MS, RD and Verzhine Daglyan, MS, RD, CDN to help us sort it out.

Organic foods are certified by the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) to have been grown without synthetic pesticides, chemical fertilizers, antibiotics or growth hormones; do not contain genetically modified organisms (GMOs); and are not processed using irradiation, industrial solvents or chemical food additives.


Natural food items are derived only from plants and animals, and are not altered chemically or synthesized. Some people choose natural foods because the nutrients that offer health benefits are not disturbed. There is no USDA certification process for farming practices used to produce foods labeled natural. Thus a natural food item is not necessarily organic and vice versa. Natural foods contain a higher water content than organic foods, so the shelf life of natural foods is lower. To learn more about the differences between organic and natural foods, click here.

When natural or certified organic farming practices are used, production cost goes up, and the yield (or harvest) of these foods usually is smaller than with conventional farming. For this reason, organic products typically cost 10 to 40% more.

Is this increase in your grocery bill "worth it"? Studies have shown that organic foods and conventionally produced foods provide about the same amount of nutrition

What about food safety? All foods (organic, natural and conventional) are covered under U.S. food safety laws and regulations. The central food safety issues between organic and conventional products are pesticide residues and foodborne illness. 

While conventional foods do have higher pesticide residues than organic foods, these levels meet or exceed the USDA standard for food safety. Organic produce show a slightly higher contamination rate with E. coli and salmonella due to the use of natural fertilizers (reminder: always thoroughly wash fresh fruits and vegetables, whether organic or conventional). Overall, conventional and organic foods have about equal safety records.

Studies do indicate that organic farming practices have lower environmental impact, and these practices may be more sustainable than conventional farming.

What's the bottom line? Selecting organic foods is more of a personal choice than a question of nutrition or even food safety. If you feel the difference in cost is "worth it" in terms of your own beliefs and peace of mind, then it is.

To help you prioritize your organic purchases, click here to download a list of the Dirty Dozen (best to buy organic) and Clean 15.

Fruits, vegetables, low-fat dairy, whole grains, meats and legumes are part of a healthy diet.

Our most important recommendation: Eat fruits, vegetables, low-fat and non-fat dairy products, whole grains, some meats and legumes to meet the latest government guidelines.

Whether organic, natural or conventional, these foods are wholesome and contribute to healthful dietary patterns. 

For more information about this topic or other questions about your family's nutrition, visit the American Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics.




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