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Organic vs. Non-Organic: What’s the Difference?

This is part two in a series of three articles on organic foods originally published by Food Sentry on March 31, 2013. Read part one here: The Low-Down on Organic Foods.

With the basics behind us of what constitutes an organic product under the National Organic Program (NOP), we can move forward to comparing organic products with non-organic. What are the differences between the two, if any? Let’s explore.

Size and shape

When purchasing organic produce, the physical differences between organic and non-organic versions are almost instantaneously noticeable. Organic produce frequently comes in variable sizes and shapes that often look physically “imperfect,” whereas non-organic produce all seems to look relatively the same (within type, of course). But why? The short version is that much non-organic, unprocessed or minimally processed produce is treated with a variety of growth-enhancing substances and is also commonly subjected to U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) grading and quality standards (voluntarily), while organic produce is not. This may be changing, however, as USDA is currently working to implement similar types of physical standards under the NOP.

Similar to produce, organic meats (beef, pork, poultry, etc.), specifically cuts of meat, are often physically different from their non-organic counterparts. While cuts of organic meat have similar coloration to non-organic cuts, organic cuts are usually a bit smaller. The main reasoning for this size difference is simple: animals used for the production of organic meat products are not treated with any growth-enhancing substances commonly used in non-organic meat production, often resulting in smaller cuts.

Quality differences

Defining the “quality” differences between organic and non-organic produce and meats is difficult because of the differing values people assign to quality when it comes to food. In a nutshell, organic food products must meet the same standards that apply to non-organic foods, but the organic food products must meet an additional set of standards (the NOP) that do not apply to non-organic products. Additionally, organic products are required to be certified as meeting these extra standards, while participation by non-organic product producers in many of the basic USDA-established standards and certifications is not required (though many do participate).

Back to our original question: is there a quality difference between organic and non-organic products? Well, if you as an individual attribute low environmental impact, minimal additive and synthetic-substance use, as well as stricter regulation of farming practices with greater “quality” in the food you eat, then organic products would probably generally register as such. On the other hand, if you as an individual associate attributes such as higher product consistency, greater size and more “perfect” physical characteristics with greater “quality” in the food you eat, then organic products probably would not represent a higher-quality product to you.

Also, although a lot of people believe that organic products are nutritionally superior to non-organic products, some very recent studies have shown that the nutritional differences between organic products and non-organic products are generally minuscule, although research on the topic is ongoing.

Food additives, pesticides and other substances

Perhaps the most substantial and tangible differences between organic products and non-organic products lie in the various substances used in non-organic food production that are not in organics. Under the NOP, the use of certain modification methods, pesticides and other synthetic substances on food plants, as well as the use of food additives, fortifiers and substances that may be used as processing aids in organic products, are strictly limited to legislation-identified methods, substances and uses (see exceptions here: Substances and methods list).

Additionally, animals used to produce organic products such as eggs, cheeses, meats, etc., are raised on organic feeds without the use of antibiotics (except in certain atypical circumstances), growth-enhancing substances and other various artificial substances and modification methods. In the end, all of these things mean that, in theory, organic products contain, if any, far fewer artificial ingredients (e.g., preservatives and pesticide and/or antibiotic residues, etc.) than their non-organic counterparts.

A market divided

At this point, you’re armed with most of the information necessary to better judge and understand the organic food market. However, knowing about the numerous physical, visual, qualitative and compositional differences between organic and non-organic products is only the second part of the organics puzzle.

© Food Safety News
  • ingles Leah McGrath

    While somewhat helpful and interesting as a supermarket dietitian I disagree w/ some of these blanket statements.
    The difference between organic and conventional produce is not “instantaneously” noticeable and in fact were it not for the “9″ PLU code (& sometimes higher price) many consumers would not know which was which. We strive to buy good quality organic produce (often locally sourced) that is comparable to the conventional produce.
    In regards to meat – meat is usually cut based on weight so you would not see a big size difference between cuts of organic & conventional. If anything you might see less marbling(saturated fat) in grass-fed – though that is not automatically organic beef.
    It is also misleading to suggest that conventional/non-organic products may have pesticides, hormones, or artificial ingredients – this certainly is a generalization that may not be accurate. For example, since organic produce is permitted to use certain non-synthetic pesticides, it is very likely there is pesticide residue on organic produce.

    • http://burningbird.net Shelley Powers

      You’re making a blanket assertion yourself, when you say “it is very likely there is pesticide residue on organic produce”.

      That’s not true. There may, there may not. It depends on the techniques used in growing the produce, and how it’s processed after harvesting.

      Many smaller organic farmers use techniques other than applying pesticides in order to control pests. Heck, even some larger farms use other techniques–it all depends.

      In addition, from an environmental perspective (the reason I tend to buy organic), according to what I’ve read, organic pesticides typically have less harmful impact than synthetic. Plus, to repeat, many organic farmers try to do without any pesticide.

      • Almost Friday…

        she made a accurate blanket assertion.. If you can find produce in a supermarket organic or not that doesn’t have pesticide residue let me know where your shopping haha.

        Even if the Organic Farmer didnt apply any pesticides, it is very likely to be cross contaminated at some point in the supply chain. Obviously the residues would be in very small concentrations so it doesn’t really matter but just saying its a fair assumption to assume 90% of organic supermarket produce has detectable residues.

        Although not particularly important for domestic sales (since there isnt much testing done to verify pesticide residues), this could cause a huge problem when exporting/importing organic produce and a non approved organic residue was detected even at 0.01 ppm.

        A lot of U.S. labs still only test to 0.05 ppm which is basically pointless for international sales seeing as 90% of positives detected are within the range of 0.05 and 0.01 ppm.

        So if you lab isn’t ISO17025 accredited, has 0.05 detection limits and you plan on exporting you should plan on finding another lab because when they check in destination the labs going to test to 0.01ppm and they will be ISO17025 accredited so their results win no matter what your report says. (exception would be for post harvest substances because they are applied at higher concentrations usually over 1 ppm so the 0.01 ppm detection limit isnt as crucial but ISO17025 still is)

      • Patty

        How do any of us know what farmers use and do not use, unless we are the farmer! I mean really if I told you the sky was yellow behing the blue would you believe me? Seriously this whole organic thing has everyone mis led. I as a child are non organic food growing up, and I am completely ok. Healthy, no diabetes, high blood pressure, high cholesterol, nothing. I don’t eat organic for, lol but people I know that do eat organic foods have all of these health issues. Why is that? Hmmm makes me wonder!

        • http://burningbird.net Shelley Powers

          Because there are regulations and procedures guiding what a farmer can or cannot use in order to get the organic labeling. And there are third party audits done in order to ensure compliance. This includes tracking what the farmer buys to apply to his or her field.

          Seriously, you’re basically saying there should be no laws because someone somewhere will violate them.

        • Douglas

          To suggest that your friends health issues can be attributed to the consumption of organic food(s) is truly one of the most asinine comments I have ever read.

      • PA Ph.D.

        Shelly said, “according to what I’ve read, organic pesticides typically have less harmful impact than synthetic.” Could you name one scientific study that shows that people are harmed from trace ppb pesticide residue on crops?
        Before I went to grad school, I used to believe many of these urban legends. My mom managed a health food store. I came to the light after a series of embarassing conversations where I argued some of these “organic urban legends.” My friends challenged me and, much to my embarassment, I found that much of the organic propaganda was just that.
        How can someone claim “organic pesticides” are less harmful to us than “conventional pesticides” when dozens of studies over the past 50 years have shown that we are *unaffected* by miniscule ppb trace residues. **Do you know that you inhale hundreds of more toxic chemicals in traffic exhaust on your way to work at much higher levels? I’m surprised the organic folks don’t push for hermetically-sealed automobiles with carbon filters to prevent inhalation of deadly chemicals that have been shown to cause harm from exhaust fumes.
        On the conventional side, there are urban legends as well. If both sides would provide more science-based arguments, instead of parotting the latest talking points from propaganda e-mails and newsletters, mankind would be much better served.

        • Mari

          I think of the toxic chemicals in traffic exhaust whenever I see people running to keep healthy, on a 95F day, right next to 4 lane traffic at rush hour. Really?? I keep the windows up, clean the car filter and keep the air on recycle. Grow your own, in a greenhouse. Only way to do it.

      • person

        GMOs have benefited us since the 1990′s and no conclusions to any health issues have been made besides a slight chance to allergic reactions which is super rare, anyhow, GMO’s decrease the amount of land, which is good for our growing population which has reached 8 billion, two years earlier than expected.

  • http://burningbird.net Shelley Powers

    This piece is somewhat fluffy in nature: it fills a lot of space, but doesn’t necessarily pack a lot of fact into the space.

    As an example: the claim about the appearance of organic goods isn’t based on fact. Take the tomato. You can get very uniform organic tomatoes, because the uniformity of the tomato is based on hybridization, which doesn’t impact on the organic classification or not. So you can get a ‘perfect’ organic tomato alongside a ‘perfect’ non-organic tomato.

    The irregularly appearing tomatoes are “heritage” and are not necessarily organic.

  • ethanspapa

    In Massachusetts; I find it difficult in giving $42,000 a year in cash and benefits, plus an unending supply of top flight healthcare to illegal aliens. Young people that give birth to babies while still in Junior High and High school often multiple times before they graduate. ( Most don’t ) . Unwilling to name the sperm donor father. They suck the marrow out of these hard working people that are trying to realize the American dream, of becoming self suffiecnt and beholden to no one.
    I say go for it.
    This is the most obvious of reasons that third world country’s are still living in the dark ages. Sloth which creates ignorance, apathy and disgust in oneself.
    I would strongly suggest these people read Winston Churchill’s quote on Socialism.. If you don’t know who he is look it up.

    • Kim Russell

      YES, AND THEY’RE CALLED LIBERALS!!

    • jomuir

      that’s a whole lot of crazy in one post.

  • PA Ph.D.

    If a piece of land has “toxic residues” does anyone really believe letting it sit for 3 years magically transforms it from toxic to untoxic?

    • Ali Emami

      not magical but it makes sense that rain washes the water soluble toxic residue out or to the lower levels of soil where the roots don’t usually reach.

    • Linda

      IF I’m not wrong, it used to be five years. Either way, it’s the same principle.

  • Kim Russell

    There is a world of difference as far as toxicity, safety, cleanliness, health, wholesomeness, etc., is concerned, but there probably isn’t much, if any, difference nutritionally. Liberal morons in the Liberal media, news, press, etc., have been zeroing in ONLY the nutritional factor, on in order to confuse, deceive, trick, and manipulate the public into thinking there is no difference in order to help the NON-ORGANIC farmers, ranchers, and producers, and others who are clearly decimating, obliterating, ruining, and destroying our seed, soil, crop, water, air, livestock, and food supply.

    I see exactly what they’ve been doing. They don’t fool me at all.

    They aren’t even discussing, reporting, writing, or talking about the safety, toxicity, or the inherent dangers associated with all the vile, poisonous, toxic, and deadly chemicals, fertilizers, drugs, hormones, steroids, antibiotics, etc., they use.

    Furthermore, this is the REAL cause, culprit, and reason for all the obesity, diabetes, cancer, heart disease, high blood pressure, and genetic and metabolic changes in humans and animals alike. It’s not sugar, fats, etc., as they would have you believe. This is total, complete, and blatant disinformation, misconceptions, distortions, inaccuracies, and lies by Liberal idiots, pure lies.

    The public needs to completely DISREGARD and IGNORE anything they see, read, or hear on ANY Liberal media TV program, news, radio, newspaper, website, talk show, ISP, magazine, etc., etc., etc., because it’s all B.S., nothing but Liberal lies, hype, distortions, manipulation, schemes, deception, illusion, spin, tactics, and propaganda.

    • JSC005

      That is funny. And you have 4 people that like what you said. Everything is a conspiracy and everyone is out to poison you. Do a search for reputable studies on what causes cancer.

  • Partisan Pat

    “some very recent studies have shown that the nutritional differences between organic products and non-organic products are generally minuscule”

    Links?

  • Tommy Squarepants

    this was useful for my essay…

  • Jennifer Deroche

    The discussion regarding the differences between the size and quality of organic versus non-organic or conventional is quite interesting. There are some stores were as a consumer I am unable to determine without the label whether or not a product is organic or not. I would be interested in finding out more regarding the nutritional values and the benefits to employees of the different product farms. My family tries to buy organic when financially feasible. If a consumer is only able to purchase certain organic products, what would be the best ones to purchase (meats, vegetables, fruits)?

    • gator33

      EWG (Environmental Working Group) has lists of best things to buy organic or not. Also lists of safe cosmetics, bug screens, suntan lotion, etc.

  • Casey Gaudin

    Where’s part 3?

  • Bitch please

    who the fuck talks like this. answer the fucking question. YES OR NO!! geez this is ridiculous trying to make yourself sound so much smarter because you can fabricate a synthetic response that correlates with the current jargon… SO fucking stupid.

  • Lisa Rose

    Okay but, doesn’t it TASTE better??

  • cheezburger to the face

    cheezburgers are inorganic sometimes

  • http://www.facebook.com/steward.b.clinton Steward B. Clinton

    Thank you. I’m no Doctor, but I notice none of the so-called doctors commenting mentioned any of these well publicized facts. Not to mention pesticide literally bred inside the seed, or the corrolation to cancer in countries that use GMO seed and super-bug pesticides needed to grow them, nor do they acknowledge the actual comparisons in crops grown in Kenya where they competed against GMO crops using new and improved irrigation and cultivation techniques where in the GMO crops took twice as long, far more water, and still were less abundant, and left the land contaminated. Lots ignored by the so-called “Doctors” – including the ones I know.

  • Ms. D

    Please can you comment on what it means when a non organic certified farmer says that they use all the same products/pesticides as organic farmers, but just more of them to produce fruits. e.g. Apples, pears, peaches etc. Is there any follow up question I should ask after I hear this?

  • Nathan Richardson

    “organic” hahahaha most people don’t understand what that even means.

  • LINK

    Not that anything above mentions taste? I found a noticeable difference in taste and flavour with organic produce and as such though used to it now haven’t turned back since. Little old me just a consumer ;)

  • ChenFeng Huang

    Would someone tell me, is there some supermarkets sell organic foods is 100% safety?

  • viber

    What is an non organic

  • Anu

    If you are curently working in food industry or anything related, you should know by know how well the 3rd party audits
    work. I have worked with multiple auditors, from well recognised
    certification bodies, and my conclusion is that I know about the
    regulations and procedures much better than them, and I dont even have a
    lot of years of experience in my bag.
    Seriously the organic industry
    has become such a joke. I won’t be surprised if sometime soon people
    will come up with concepts like “Organic bottled water”.

    Many people dont even know what organic is. and some geniuses think that organic is GMO free.
    Like the article states in the 1st part, “In our opinion, food labeling in the U.S. is probably one of the most
    confusing, dysfunctional and often-misleading aspects of the food
    market. In fact, there is a whole industry devoted to helping
    manufacturers learn and apply labeling regulations. Unfortunately,
    “organic” product labeling is no exception, although at least use of the
    term “organic” is better regulated than the term “natural.””
    And the marketing departments of these giant organic companies and grocery markets and making teh best out of that confusion.