The Differences Between Organic and Non-Organic Food


The Pure Empathy Education Group

Differences between Organic and Non-Organic Foods

Understanding the differences between organic and non-organic foods is important to understanding when choosing to purchase foods for your diet. These choices can affect your health and your finances. 

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.

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.

Why is organic food more expensive than conventional food?

Certified organic food. Certified organic products are generally more expensive than their conventional counterparts (for which prices have been declining) for a number of reasons: 

  • Organic food supply is limited as compared to demand; 

  • Production costs for organic foods are typically higher because of greater labour inputs per unit of output and because greater diversity of enterprises means economies of scale cannot be achieved; 

  • Post-harvest handling of relatively small quantities of organic foods results in higher costs because of the mandatory segregation of organic and conventional produce, especially for processing and transportation; 

  • Marketing and the distribution chain for organic products is relatively inefficient and costs are higher because of relatively small volumes.

As demand for organic food and products is increasing, technological innovations and economies of scale should reduce costs of production, processing, distribution and marketing for organic produce.

Prices of organic foods include not only the cost of the food production itself, but also a range of other factors that are not captured in the price of conventional food, such as: 

  • Environmental enhancement and protection (and avoidance of future expenses to mitigate pollution). For example, higher prices of organic cash crops compensate for low financial returns of rotational periods which are necessary to build soil fertility; 

  • Higher standards for animal welfare; 

  • Avoidance of health risks to farmers due to inappropriate handling of pesticides (and avoidance of future medical expenses); 

  • Rural development by generating additional farm employment and assuring a fair and sufficient income to producers.

Non-certified organic food. In many developing countries, there are agricultural systems that fully meet the requirements of organic agriculture but which are not certified. Non-certified organic agriculture refers to organic agricultural practices by intent and not by default; this excludes non-sustainable systems which do not use synthetic inputs but which degrade soils due to lack of soil building practices. It is difficult to quantify the extent of these agricultural systems as they exist outside the certification and formal market systems. 

Organic foods: Are they safer? More nutritious?

Discover the real difference between organic foods and their traditionally grown counterparts when it comes to nutrition, safety and price.

Once found only in health food stores, organic food is now a regular feature at most supermarkets. And that's created a bit of a dilemma in the produce aisle.

On one hand, you have a conventionally grown apple. On the other, you have one that's organic. Both apples are firm, shiny and red. Both provide vitamins and fiber, and both are free of fat, sodium and cholesterol. Which should you choose? Get the facts before you shop.

Conventional vs. organic farming

The word "organic" refers to the way farmers grow and process agricultural products, such as fruits, vegetables, grains, dairy products and meat. Organic farming practices are designed to encourage soil and water conservation and reduce pollution.

Farmers who grow organic produce don't use conventional methods to fertilize and control weeds. Examples of organic farming practices include using natural fertilizers to feed soil and plants, and using crop rotation or mulch to manage weeds.

Organic or not? Check the label

The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) has established an organic certification program that requires all organic foods to meet strict government standards. These standards regulate how such foods are grown, handled and processed.

Any product labeled as organic must be USDA certified. Only producers who sell less than $5,000 a year in organic foods are exempt from this certification; however, they're still required to follow the USDA's standards for organic foods.