The USDA Organic seal always gives me that sense of comfort.  Contrary to what most people think, organic does not necessarily mean pesticide free.   Instead, it means that pesticides must be derived from natural sources and not synthetically manufactured. Additionally, pesticides must be applied using equipment that has not been used to apply synthetic materials for the past three years.

And while organics are healthier for you and the planet, there’s a lot more to it than just pesticides. Foods with the USDA Organic seal must abide by strict guidelines mandated by the federal government.  Below are a few guidelines that may surprise you.

Certified Organic Foods Ban Sewage Sludge.

This kind of grosses me out but is true.  It is hard to imagine how food of any kind, conventional or not could be lawfully treated with sewage sludge. Sewage sludge is the semi solid sludge that’s leftover after sewage is treated and processed. In conventional foods it can be used for fertilizer but organic foods aren’t allowed to be treated with sewage sludge.

Certified Organic Foods Ban Irradiation.

Irradiation is the controlled exposure of radiation in the form of x-rays or gamma rays which probe into foods, both packaged and bulk, killing mold, insects, and bacteria. Food irradiation also prevents sprouting and delays ripening of produce. A number of common foods are irradiated including spices, wheat flour, pork, poultry, beef, eggs, and imported fruits to name a few. But foods that carry the USDA Organic seal cannot be irradiated.

Certified Organic Foods Ban Genetically Engineered Ingredients.

The USDA Organic Rule states that “The use of genetically engineered organisms and their products are prohibited in any form or at any stage in organic production, processing or handling.” This means an organic farmer can’t plant GMO seeds, an organic cow can’t eat GMO alfalfa or corn, and an organic soup producer can’t use any GMO ingredients. However, there is the threat of GMO’s contaminating farms through seed drift, which is beyond the control of the farmer.

Eating organic produce means you consume less pesticides. A 2015 study by University of Washington researchers found that people who reported eating organic produce had significantly lower organophosphate insecticides exposures. Even after fruits and vegetables are washed or peeled, pesticide residues are common on conventionally grown produce.

Sometimes eating organic produce is not an option because of cost or availability. When that is the case, focus on eating fruits and vegetables with the least amount of pesticide residue. Environmental Working Group (EWG) publishes a guide every year to help consumers know which conventionally grown fruits and vegetables are the safest to eat. Called the Shopper’s Guide to Pesticides in Produce, it contains a Dirty Dozen list of fruits and vegetables with the highest pesticide residues, and a list of produce with few or any residues, called the Clean Fifteen.

The group identified the following items on its “Dirty Dozen” list of produce with the most pesticide residue:

  1. Strawberries
  2. Spinach
  3. Nectarines
  4. Apples
  5. Grapes
  6. Peaches
  7. Cherries
  8. Pears
  9. Tomatoes
  10. Celery
  11. Potatoes
  12. Sweet Bell Peppers


Here are the items the identified for its “Clean 15,” which report the least likelihood to contain pesticide residue.

  1. Avocados
  2. Sweet Corn
  3. Pineapples
  4. Cabbages
  5. Onions
  6. Sweet Peas
  7. Papayas
  8. Asparagus
  9. Mangoes
  10. Eggplants
  11. Honeydews
  12. Kiwis
  13. Cantaloupes
  14. Cauliflower
  15. Broccoli

“It is vitally important that everyone eats plenty of produce, but it is also wise to avoid dietary exposure to toxic pesticides, from conception through childhood,” said Sonya Lunder, senior analyst with EWG, in a statement.  With EWG’s guide, consumers can fill their fridges and fruit bowls with plenty of healthy conventional and organic produce that isn’t contaminated with multiple pesticide residues.”