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The mention of organic food might make you think of beautiful vegetables and fruits growing in idyllic fields and the best of what you see at a farmers’ market. But what about packaged (aka processed) food? We all eat it, at least some of the time.
Does it make a difference if you buy organic versions of your favorite packaged fare? It usually does, according to a new study of 8,240 organic and 72,205 conventional food products sold in the U.S. in 2019 and 2020.
In the past, studies have identified lower levels of toxins and a better impact on the environment as reasons to go organic. But as it turns out, those aren’t the only benefits.
“I was surprised,” says Aurora Meadows, RD, lead author of the recent study. “There are measurable differences in the healthfulness of organic products.”
Compared to conventional packaged foods, the study found that organic versions contained:
- Less added sugar
- Less added salt
- Less saturated fat
- No added trans fats (often hidden in conventional foods)
- More potassium
- Fewer additives that promote overeating
- Fewer ultra-processed ingredients
What Is Ultra-Processed Food?
A term coined by scientists, “ultra-processed” describes highly processed food ingredients that are not usually found in traditional home kitchens, such as high fructose corn syrup (not allowed in organic foods), modified corn starch, emulsifiers, and additives that enhance appearance, texture, mouthfeel, flavor, color, and shelf life. Without additives, many of today’s popular packaged foods would be far from appealing.
Studies of large populations show that eating ultra-processed food is associated with most of today’s non-communicable ailments, such as heart and brain diseases, depression, obesity, and increased risk of death.
Did You Know?
The Environment Working Group offers a free Food Scores system to check nutrition, processing, and toxicity of more than 80,000 foods.
The number of possible food additives in conventional foods is staggering: an estimated 2,000 additives and many have never been reviewed for safety. For organic foods, less than 40 additives are allowed, and these are reviewed for safety every 5 years.
As an example of the organic advantage, says Meadows, a conventional blueberry muffin can contain blueberry bits made of synthetic flavoring and coloring, but no actual blueberries. Organic regulations prohibit this type of pseudo-blueberry muffin.
The Organic Barometer
“Buying organic should be a good proxy for a more healthful product,” Meadows says. But still, watch out for organic products with one or more ultra-processed ingredients.
The word “flavor” is the biggest thing Meadows recommends avoiding, even if it’s listed in ingredients as “natural flavor.” Although flavoring for organic foods is more tightly regulated than for conventional ones, it’s still a sign of a less-than-healthful heavily processed food.
Bottom line, the less processed and packaged food, the better it is for you. And organic versions are more likely to be the best.