Understanding Organic Foods and GMOs

I majored in Human Nutrition and Foods so I get a lot of questions about diet and food choices.  I had a private practice for several years working with heart patients and women looking to make lifestyle changes.  The questions I got for many years were all about choosing healthy options, but recently, the questions have shifted to not just asking about nutritional content in food, but also a concern about the use of chemicals and GMOs in our food.

The modern day grocery store in the US has an abundance of options.  Stores now boast having up to 70,000 individual items to meet every shopper’s need.  Just thinking about that statistic can be overwhelming.  Add to that all the variations within each section of the store, and going grocery shopping can be downright intimidating.

Let’s start by taking a look at organic foods.  They have hit the market, and our wallet hard, so understanding your investment can help.

As noted by the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA), organic products have strict production requirements, and must meet the following criteria:

  1. Produced without excluded methods, (e.g., genetic engineering, ionizing radiation, or sewage sludge)
  2. Produced using allowed substances
  3. Overseen by a USDA National Organic Program-authorized certifying agent, following all USDA organic regulations

Producers cannot label a product organic unless it meets these standards and the producer is certified.  So there is a level of consumer protection, but consumers are left to decide where they can get the most bang for their buck.

The Environmental Working Group (EWG) is a non profit organization “dedicated to protecting human health and the environment.”  Each year since 2004, the group has tested 48 of the most popular fruits and vegetables, and posted the level of pesticides found in the produce leading to the annual Dirty Dozen and the Clean Fifteen.  The Dirty Dozen are the produce that contain the highest amount of pesticides.  If you are going to buy organic produce, these are the ones to buy.  The Clean Fifteen contain the least amount of pesticide, but there is still pesticide present.

Below are the most recent lists.  These are updated annually, and will give you a guide on where to focus if you are considering buying organic produce.


Organic foods don’t stop in the produce section, but produce is not processed so pesticide residue can be the highest in these products.  The rule I follow is that if the item is on the Dirty Dozen list, I buy organic of that same item if I am buying it canned or frozen, i.e. tomatoes.

GMOs, or genetically modified organisms, are another area of concern for people.  A GMO is an organism that has had its DNA altered in order to make the food tastier, more nutritious, and resistant to disease and drought.  90% of soy, cotton, canola, and beets grown in the US have been genetically engineered (Live Science).  Many engineered products ensure the crop is insect resistant cutting down on the need for wide area spraying.

If an item is organic, it cannot have GMOs so no need to check for GMOs in organic products. Non organic items can have GMOs, so reading labels becomes important if you are looking to buy foods that are not modified.  If GMOs are on your Do Not Buy list, buying all organic is the easiest way to remain true to your decision.  The jury is out on the soundness and safety of GMOs, and consumers are left to decide for themselves where they fall.  It is seductive to believe that GMOs lead to less widespread spraying reducing environmental impacts, but the long term impacts of GMOs is less known.  There is just no easy answer here, and I will say, that I recommend following the Dirty Dozen and the Clean Fifteen as a balanced start to traversing the intersection of food and genetics.

Bringing It All Together

Organics, GMOs, and the Dirty Dozen oh my!  There is a lot of information here.  Follow EWGs lists to focus on which organic product to buy in the grocery store.  If GMOs are a major concern for you, only buy organic foods.  Our food system is rapidly changing, and it is up to consumers to stay informed.


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