It's tempting to pretend all we eat is sun-kissed tomatoes straight from the garden, but let's be honest: we've all got at least one secret Whole Foods buy, from pesticide-free versions of our favorite microwavable oatmeal packets to non-GMO gummy candies to the boxed mac and cheese complete with not-so-neon-but-still-fairly-processed cheese powder packet. (Seriously, how do they make that cheese powder taste so damn good?)
Well, it turns out we don't have to feel guilty for these guilty pleasures. A new peer-reviewed study by EWG scientists has just become the first to delve into just how much healthier organic processed foods are than non-organic processed foods. And the answer is… a lot.
The study analyzed more than 80,000 foods, finding that organic products contained significantly fewer ingredients associated with negative health effects (think glyphosate, which the World Health Organization dubbed a probable human carcinogen in 2015, or carrageenan, which has been linked by some to gut inflammation and is forbidden in infant formula and other foods for children in the EU.) Of course, that's no surprise: these and others – like synthetic pesticides, fertilizers, antibiotics, and more are forbidden under the organic certification, which allows fewer than 40 total synthetic additives.
According to the study, organic packaged foods also proved to boast fewer of the ultra-processed ingredients that some early research has shown may actually promote overeating. (As in... the more crap you eat, the more crap you want to eat. Sound familiar?)
From the Organic Authority Files
And to top it all off, organic packaged foods also contain more potassium and less added sugar, saturated fat, and sodium. In fact, the study showed that the very likelihood of classification as organic increased, the less the food contained sodium, sugar, additives, and ultra-processed ingredients.
This research contradicts two previous studies in the same field, and it boasts some major differences. As compared to a 2014 study, which compared only ready-to-eat breakfast cereals, or a 2020 study in Italy, which used a much smaller sample size, this new study overcame the limitations of previous research to reach these exciting conclusions.
Look, it’s no surprise that whole foods are always best. But nearly 60 percent of calories eaten by Americans are processed or packaged, a number on the rise: one study shows that youths aged two to 19 years of age in the U.S. get even more of their calories from ultra-processed foods – an average of 67 percent. In 2018, more than 70 percent of the packaged food and beverage supply in 2018 was ultra-processed, a category classified by the NOVA Food Classification System developed at the University of Sao Paulo in Brazil as being made up of “ industrial formulations made entirely or mostly from substances extracted from foods,” essentially more lab experiment than goodness and a category linked to a higher risk of cardiovascular disease. And according to study authors, the more a food is processed, the more likely it is to be calorically dense, higher in trans fats, saturated fats, added sugars, and sodium… which, according to the U.S. Dietary Guidelines, we're already consuming "in excess of recommendations" as a society.
Organics have already been shown to boast better health benefits than conventional, not just for what's not in them, but thanks to what is. Organic foods often boast better nutrient profiles, with higher omega-3 content in meat and dairy and higher antioxidant profiles in fruit and veg. And now we know that in addition to the fresh stuff, whether processed foods are a part of your daily routine or a once-in-a-while indulgence, take comfort in the fact that when you reach for an organic alternative to ultra-processed chips, popcorn, or even microwavable mac and cheese, you are indeed making a better choice.