Organic Diets: What You Need to Know

by Wagner Skis / Jun 26, 2018


By Alan Safdi, M.D., FACG

Dr. Alan Safdi is past chairman of the Section of Gastroenterology at Deaconess Hospital and served as co-founder and president of the Ohio Gastroenterology and Liver Institute. Dr. Safdi is board certified in internal medicine and gastroenterology, and is a Fellow of the American College of Gastroenterology. He is former chairman of the Crohn’s and Colitis Medical Advisory Board in Cincinnati and still serves as president of Consultants for Clinical Research. He was also co-founder of eMerge Health Solutions, Consultants for Clinical Research, and outpatient GI and anesthesia programs.

This is one of the trickier posts I’ve written. The question about what organic foods someone should buy seems easy. However, it is very difficult with a lot of complexities. The answers will change over time with personal circumstances, governmental regulations, and testing methodologies. Remember that sugar and bad fats can be “organic,” but regardless of that they still cause obesity and illness (more on that here). If you can’t find organic fruits and vegetables, I personally would recommend eating “non-organic” fruits and veggies, and not skip those key elements of a healthy diet. It’s also important to note that organic does not mean clean. People on organic and conventional diets are at about the same risk for food poisoning. Adequate cleaning of these foods is extremely important.

Seventy-four percent of Americans want to eat foods without pesticides, but organic doesn’t necessarily mean pesticide-free. Organic farmers have a much shorter list of substances that can be used for pest control, such as insecticidal soap, pheromones for disrupting mating, copper sulfate, and others. Overall, organic produce contains significantly less pesticide residue than conventionally grown foods.

However, there have been no long-term studies of health outcomes among patients who eat a predominantly organic diet versus one full of conventionally produced foods. It’s difficult to prove that organic food is healthier and more nutritious. A few studies conclude that raw organic foods pack more nutrients, but when we look at the way the body processes these nutrients, studies have not found any clinically meaningful differences between organic and conventional foods – that is, there are no significant differences in nutrient levels in blood serum, urine, breast milk, or semen.

It is definitely true that organic plants contain significantly less pesticide residue, and that organic growing methods are generally safer for the environment and for farmers. There is evidence of a 30% higher risk for contamination with pesticide residues in conventional products, and two studies reported lower urinary pesticide levels among children on organic diets. Organic chicken and pork may reduce exposure to antibiotic-resistant bacteria. The feeding requirements for organic livestock farming, such as the primary use of grass and alfalfa for cattle, result in generally higher levels of omega-3 fatty acids, a kind of fat that is more heart healthy than other fats. These higher omega-3 fatty acids are found in organic meats, dairy, and eggs.

Organic certification requirements and farming practices vary widely, but some requirements for organic foods and livestock are:

  • Grown without synthetic pesticides or fertilizers.
  • Processed without irradiation or chemical food additives.
  • Not grown from genetically modified organisms.
  • No antibiotics or growth hormones.
  • Organically produced, pesticide-free animal feed.

Natural and “organic” are not interchangeable terms. In general, “natural” on a food label means that it has no artificial colors, flavors, or preservatives. It does not refer to the methods or materials used to produce the food ingredients.

Here is a list of the foods that I would suggest always buying as organic, if possible:

  • Dairy products. Milk concentrates a lot of the pesticides and harmful products given to the cow. Certified organic dairy means that the cows did not received any antibiotics or growth hormones and they ate only 100 percent organic feed, although grass fed milk may even be a little better.
  • Strawberries
  • Spinach
  • Apples. If you eat conventional apples, make sure they are washed well. This will not get rid of all the pesticides but some on the surface.
  • Celery
  • Tomatoes
  • Grapes. Do not forget to wash all of these products well.
  • Hot peppers
  • Kale
  • Lettuce
  • Meat from a cow, chicken, or turkey. It is worth the money if possible to buy meats without hormones, antibiotics, and pesticides. The feed in a conventional cow, chicken, or turkey may contain herbicides, other additives, and synthetic fertilizers.
  • Nectarines
  • Peaches
  • White potatoes
  • Sweet bell peppers
  • Cucumbers
  • Pears
  • Cherries

Frozen organic is fine and may save you some money. The health benefits of eating fruits and veggies, organic or not, are well established, and massively outweigh any risk from pesticide residues. The latest in a long line of papers on the many health benefits of reducing meat intake concludes that a plant-based diet is great news for your heart. A vegetarian diet reduces heart and cardiovascular disease death risk by 40%. Blocked arteries are unblocked partially or fully in as many as 91% of patients. Hypertension risk drops by 34%.

Total cholesterol and low-density lipoprotein (“bad cholesterol”) levels are much lower in vegetarians compared with non-vegetarians. Moreover, a plant-based diet was shown to be associated with weight loss. While some foods are better organic than conventional, it’s still incredibly important to keep eating your fruits and vegetables regardless of their organic status. Happy eating!

Are you interested in learning more about living a healthy life? Alan Safdi, M.D., FACG is running 6-day wellness retreats in our hometown of Telluride this summer. For more details on the retreats and the Telluride Longevity Institute, visit One week won’t just change your life, it will prolong it!

This article was written by Alan Safdi, M.D., FACG:

The information included in my posts are for educational purposes only. It is not intended nor implied to be a substitute for professional medical advice. The reader should always consult his or her healthcare provider to determine the appropriateness of the information for their own situation or if they have any questions regarding a medical condition or treatment plan. Reading the information in my posts does not create a physician-patient relationship.

Alan V. Safdi MD, FACG
Co-founder Emerge Healthcare Solutions and Consultants for Clinical Research
Past President Ohio Gastroenterology and Liver Institute
President Nominations Committee Ohio GI Society
Served as Chairman Section of Gastroenterology at.Deaconess Hospital
President Consultants for Clinical Research
Past Chairman Cincinnati Crohn’s & Colitis Medical Advisory Committee
Former Medical Director Tri-State Endoscopy Center
Served as President of the Ohio Gastroenterology Society
Lectures Nationally and Internationally on Health and Wellness