Ask the RD: How Healthy Are Organic Processed Foods?

Sidney Fry, MS, RD
by Sidney Fry, MS, RD
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Ask the RD: How Healthy Are Organic Processed Foods?

Sure, we can’t always make things from-scratch. The packaged food aisle can be a total time-saver in the hustle and bustle of today’s work-life balance. But are we really doing ourselves a favor when we buy the organic fried potato chips?

Organic doesn’t mean it is wholly nutrient-dense and doesn’t contain added sugar, salt or even refined flour. It simply means fewer chemicals were used in its production. If it’s a numbers game you are playing, the word organic on a box of crackers, bran flakes, potato chips or even mac and cheese doesn’t necessarily mean lower calories, lower fat, less sodium, more protein or even that it’s 100% whole-grain and unrefined. But what it does mean is there are certain regulations about the quality of the ingredients found on the nutrition label.  


The wheat, rye, rice and other grains used to make processed foods are typically stored in dark mills — a haven for things like bugs and insects. Much like what they do for produce, most farmers use a variety of pesticides to keep the bugs at bay and away from their hard-earned harvested grains. The same is true for the safflower, canola and soybean plants needed to make the oils necessary to fry many of the potato and tortilla chips located on the snack aisle shelves. If they aren’t certified organic, those plants have likely been sprayed.

In addition to containing fewer pesticides, any food labeled as organic — even processed ones like boxed crackers and mac and cheese — contains fewer preservatives, thickeners, artificial colors and flavors, artificial sweeteners and refined flours than non-organic counterparts.  Even those frozen organic chicken nuggets you’re wondering whether or not to purchase cannot be raised with the help of growth hormones or antibiotics if they are labeled organic. This is especially important for younger children, who have a greater chance of being affected by even low levels of pesticides.  

Additionally, the use of genetically modified organisms (GMOs) is prohibited in organic foods. GMOs are bred to withstand heavy sprayings of pesticides. Buy organic, and you avoid them entirely. As an added bonus, organic farmers  are better than conventional ones about replenishing soil and protecting important resources like water.



Both the FDA and Environmental Working Group regularly test and detect various levels of pesticides in breads, crackers and other grain-based products like tortillas, cereal and cookies. Every five years, the FDA conducts a Total Diet Study that monitors levels of contaminants and pesticide residues in processed foods, making sure they meet federal standards.  

The Environmental Working Group has a consumer tool called Food Scores that grades and evaluates many of the products you’ll see on supermarket shelves. You can download its app to help cut though some of the noise on labels (natural, gluten-free, non-GMO), making smarter shopping quick and easy. EWG is most notable for its annual Shopper’s Guide to Pesticides in Produce, which lists the Dirty Dozen fruits and vegetables with the most pesticide residues (Hello: strawberries, tomatoes and even apples), and the Clean Fifteen, for which few, if any, residues are detected, and if you have to eat, say a conventional avocado, cauliflower or broccoli, it might not be the end of the world.


Boxed, processed food that’s organic is still processed and a whole sweet potato will always win over fried sweet potato chips. But when it comes to all food, even processed, organic is better. Read your labels. Choose organic whenever possible, but look at the ingredient list, too.

About the Author

Sidney Fry, MS, RD
Sidney Fry, MS, RD

Sidney is a two-time James Beard Award-winning food and nutrition writer, editor and mom based out of Birmingham, Alabama. A registered dietitian with a passion for research and being proactive about health, she loves to eat, write, run and create simple, tasty meals with whole-food-based approach. Find out more from her website, Instagram or Twitter.


6 responses to “Ask the RD: How Healthy Are Organic Processed Foods?”

  1. Virtually every factual claim in this article is false. Organic farmers use pesticides, even synthetic ones. The OMRI Products List of 4000 chemicals certified for use in organic farming is the proof.

    Organic food is no safer and no more nutritious than conventional food (see the Stanford study, “Are organic foods safer or healthier than conventional alternatives? A systematic review”, Crystal Smith-Spangler, et al., Annals of Internal Medicine, Vol. 157 2012).

    Organic food is worse for the planet in terms of runoff, erosion, and land use because it’s less productive per acre and can’t use no-till as effectively as GMO farming can.

    The Environmental Working Group doesn’t so any food testing, it spins test data compiled by USDA. All the foods on its Dirty Dozen list are perfectly safe to eat per USDA, EPA, and FDA.

    Ignore this article, the author is clueless.

    • Avatar Progressives Progress says:

      An operative for Monsanto does not like this article – imagine that.
      So he does c/p from his Monsanto script database

      • Avatar GOOSE says:

        We can always count on Dick Bennett to show up with the industry PR troll dis-info stuff. He also trolls for Comcast. Seems to like all the big corporate agendas. Hard to beat that Dick when it comes to mindless industry propaganda..

    • Avatar patzagame says:

      Ignore this comment,the poster is trolling!

  2. Avatar Angela Jones says:

    Wow. Very disappointed to see this article associated with My Fitness Pal, which usually tends to have better researched posts. Organic does not mean less pesticides or less preservatives, thickeners or artificial colours. The EWG is not a reliable source and their dirty dozen and clean 15 lists are heavily flawed (and heavily criticized). This comes across as a very biased point of view as opposed to factual nutritional info and it makes me lose faith in the integrity of My Fitness Pal in general.

    • Avatar Peaceful Warrior says:

      You have posted a link to an op-ed industry propaganda piece. You have made several claims that are not true. Organic food is the cleanest most pesticide free food on the market and the USDA organic rules are 19 times stricter than the pesticides routinely found on GMO and conventional foods. Conventional and GMO crops are allowed to use synthetic chemical fertilizers and are often fertilized with municipal waste. Your claim that “Organic does not mean less pesticides or less preservatives, thickeners or artificial colors.” is a lie.

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