Organic vs Whole Foods: What’s Healthy?

I’m planning to start an FAQ page (updated!) for all the awesome questions I get from my readers and fans, but in the meantime, they’re fantastic fodder for new posts! As soon as I get time to organize my questions and answers in a way that makes sense, I’ll get that FAQ page started. I know lots of you have skincare and gut questions that I’ve answered individually, but I figure if a few people have those questions, probably a lot more do too. Please keep the questions coming so I can know what else to put on the FAQ page! 

For NOW though, here’s the question… 

What’s the difference between “organic” and “whole foods”?

Does “organic” mean healthy? Are all organic foods considered “whole foods”? What’s the difference? How do I know if my organic food is healthy? These are all great questions. 

whole foods vs organic

Defining “Whole Foods”

Here’s the simplest explanation: Whole foods are those that come out of the ground and onto the plate as-is with little to no processing. But we’re not talking about only raw food, so that’s not where the explanation ends. Whole foods remain whole when cooked; it’s the type of processing beyond heat exposure from cooking that can dramatically change the makeup of the food, and therefore its nutritional value and how we feel when we eat it.
 
When a food is separated into many parts and used as additives or ingredients in packaged foods (think soy lecithin, stearic acid, maltodextrin), it’s no longer a whole food. When a whole food like a seed or grain is ground into a flour or processed into oil, it’s no longer a whole food. Even whole wheat. Whole wheat bread made with wheat flour is not a whole food. Same goes for gluten-free options (rice flour is not a whole food). I discussed this briefly in my cereal rant, which I’ll admit had nothing to do with the recipe that followed, but it had to be said. 

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When fat is removed from something that naturally contains it, like dairy, that food ceases to be a whole food. Milk comes out of a cow, goat, or sheep full-fat, which means that skim milk is not a whole food. I’ll surely find a place to rant about skim milk, but there’s not enough room in this post for that. Stay tuned. 

Grey Area

Of course, as with nearly everything in life, there’s a grey area. When it comes to dairy, there’s room to argue about what “counts” as a whole food; some argue that pasteurized, homogenized milk is not a whole food, because those two processes negatively affect the quality of the fat and protein in the milk. Technically fermentation is a process, but even purists tend to agree that full-fat yogurt, kefir, and cheese are a healthy part of a whole foods diet.
 
Nut flours like almond flour are another point of contention. Almond flour is simply ground almonds — nothing is removed, no heat is applied, nothing is changed except the shape of the nut. Some very strict whole food eaters avoid even stone ground nuts and grains, because the grinding is technically a process. For me, it’s a matter of how our bodies take the food in. Processed grain and bean flours tend to hit the blood stream more quickly than their whole food counterparts (which means they should be limited). That change isn’t necessarily so with nut flours.
 
The biggest danger with something like almond flour is over-consumption. It’s tempting to think that a paleo dessert using almond flour is automatically healthy, and it’s ok to eat a lot of it, but the fact is that almonds are calorie-dense and rich in omega 6 fatty acids. This means MODERATION. Overdoing it on almonds (or nuts in general) can result in negative consequences, both on the scale and in the gut.

What to Eat?

A great example of a whole foods meal is a baked sweet potato with roasted veggies and a chicken thigh that isn’t breaded. Technically, oils aren’t whole foods, but most people on a whole foods diet (myself included) allow for cold-pressed, minimally processed oils such as extra virgin coconut oil, extra virgin olive oil, and avocado oil. Highly processed seed oils that require high-heat or chemical extractions like canola, safflower, and soybean oils are not part of a whole foods diet. Those who are super strict and don’t include oils get their fats from seeds, nuts, avocados, and fatty fish.Organic vs Whole Foods

Defining “Organic”

While it’s fantastic and preferable for everything I mentioned in the “whole food” explanation to be organic, they don’t have to be, and they’re whole foods just the same. 
 
“Certified Organic” is a certification given to farms and food processors that can prove and certify that certain guidelines were followed in the growing of the foods or raising of the animals. Certain chemical pesticides cannot be used in certified organic farming. Hormones and antibiotics cannot be used in certified organic meats. GMO seeds cannot be used to grow organic produce, nor can GMO grains be fed to certified organic animals.
 
In a perfect world, searching for the USDA Certified Organic seal would be all you needed to accomplish a healthy grocery basket, but the truth is it’s entirely possible to eat organic junk food. There exist organic cookies that use refined organic white flour, organic sugar, and organic milk chocolate chips; and chips fried with organic vegetable oil and organic potatoes. That doesn’t make those cookies and chips healthy or say anything about the way the ingredients were processed. It just makes them full of well-grown ingredients that were processed just like their non-organic counterparts.

Why Eat Organic? 

Great question, and the answer is certainly debatable. I had a great conversation with some family about this very topic a few weeks ago.
An obvious concern is the cost.
Organic is almost always more expensive than conventional, whether we’re talking about whole foods or processed food in boxes and bags.
Another concern is chemical pesticides.
The research seems to be debatable as to whether or not organic produce is more nutrient-dense than its conventional counterparts, but the Environmental Working Group in no uncertain terms shares the Dirty Dozen and Clean Fifteen every year — foods that absorb pesticides to the detriment of the consumer’s health and foods that can be eaten conventionally without consequence, respectively. 
 
whole foods vs organic
 
A third concern is the environment, irrespective of personal health.
This blog is about more than personal health. It’s about wellbeing, and part of that is a holistic view of how we exist and relate to the world around us — how we affect the environment, how our decisions affect the ecosystem. We vote with our dollars and our forks, so the more ethically produced food we consume, the higher demand there will be for farmers and businesses to convert to better practices. 
The last concern I’ll mention is the concern about GMOs.
Organic food producers are not allowed to use GMO seeds or ingredients. I’ve steered pretty clear of this topic for basically the life of this blog, because it’s such a controversial one. But one thing is not debatable. GMO seeds are made to resist pesticides, and just like misuse of antibiotics has created superbacteria, misuse of pesticides will create superpests. GMO seeds negatively affect the land on which they’re planted, because the practices employed by those who use the seeds are not sustainable practices. We can argue all day about whether or not GMO foods are harmful to our personal health, but it’s clear that  they are harmful to our land and the ecosystem. It’s up to you to decide how you feel about that.

The Sweet Spot

Ideally, one seeking a healthy lifestyle would eat whole, organic foods. The two don’t always necessarily come together in the same package, but they are most certainly not mutually exclusive. Sometimes it’s not necessary or financially feasible to buy everything organic, but doing what you can and staying away from the dirty dozen is a good place to start. You might even consider printing that list and keeping it in your wallet for trips to the grocery store.
 
As someone lucky enough to live close to many farmers’ markets, my best recommendation to you is to get to know some local farmers. There are a lot of small farms out there using organic practices who can’t afford the costly USDA certification. You might find that you can get organic quality food grown closer to your home at a lower price if you just get to know some farmers near you!
 
As always, if you have any questions about this or other information you see on this site, I’m just a comment or email away. Always happy to answer your questions or add to the FAQ page!

About 

I'm a wellness professional with a Master's in Integrative Health, passionate about spreading health, happiness and personal fulfillment to as many people as possible. I have a professional background in health and wellness, dietary supplements, and nutrition, and embark every day to live a well, balanced, happy life. In being true to myself and what I seek in life, I hope to inspire others to do the same, to cultivate wellbeing in their own lives.

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10 thoughts on “Organic vs Whole Foods: What’s Healthy?

  1. Hi, great article.. I think many ppl are confused when it comes to this topic… However, your chart above the dirty dozen? Does that mean you should buy organic? Or not eat it at all?

    • Thanks Stephanie, great question. It means you should buy those organic exclusively. Don’t buy them if you can only find conventional — they are very susceptible to what’s used in the soil and absorb the pesticides heavily. Organic methods are safer and although organic doesn’t mean “no pesticides,” it means fewer chemicals and only those allowed for use by the certified organic farming practices. So eat away at the dirt dozen, just not the conventional version of them!

  2. Hi Toni,

    Thanks for writing and sharing this informative article.

    Would like to clarify on this “but the truth is it’s entirely possible to eat organic junk food.” in the para under Defining “Organic”
    Is it meant to read “it’s entirely impossible or not possible”?

    Also, please if I may, share this article on my Facebook page?

    • Thanks Louisa! It’s entirely possible to eat organic junk food. Organic potato chips are still junk food. Organic sugar cookies are still junk food. Hope that makes sense! And YES Of course please share on Facebook! It’d be an honor. Thanks! Hope you check out the rest of the site!

  3. Good summary and synthesis! Eating fresh local, chemical-free food is the surest way for a person to look and feel better. The cost of local organic food is far less than the cost of illness, caused in part by eating depleted and adulterated food laced with additives, preservatives and pesticides! Take the time, spend the $$ to eat fresh. The brighter the flavor, the higher the healing factor!

    • Thanks Ed! It’s true that in the end, we pay one way or another — and to pay up front with a healthy lifestyle is a far less expensive (and far more enjoyable!) way to go than to pay for illness on the back end.

      • This understanding can be a life changer for people who don’t understand why they are feeling worse and worse and that medication is not able to alter that… and then, the great awakening that by eating cleaner, fresher, and relying less on sugar and stimulants for energy, they feel better as they are creating their own health and well being by finally receiving the nutrients their cells were previously lacking.

        • So true! I definitely found that to be true for myself when I made shifts in my diet — started shopping organic and at the farmer’s market and growing my own fruits and veggies, going gluten-free, and drinking bone broth. All have created lasting change.

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