Should I Buy Organic? (Part 2)

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Part 2: Organic and your health

In part one of my two-part series on organic food, I covered what the label “organic” means by USDA standards. Today, in part two, we will explore if buying organic is better for our personal health. I’ll also include some tips for making organic food fit into your budget.

Is organic food more nutritious?

Does organic produce have more nutrients than conventionally grown? This question was explored by a team of researchers at Stanford University in 2012 in a very widely publicized meta-analysis study. A meta-analysis study design includes data from many studies (in this case, 237) and compiles the data to analyze it as one large study, which lends more statistical power to the results. The Stanford study did no favors for organic marketers: it found that vitamin and mineral levels in organic produce were no different than levels in conventionally grown.

Another meta-analysis out of Newcastle University in England painted organics in a more positive light after it analyzed largely the same data. This study found that organic produce contained more vitamin C and phenols (cancer-fighting molecules) than conventionally grown.

Although seemingly on opposite sides of the spectrum, the two studies actually agreed on many points: there was not a significant difference in most vitamins and minerals, and phenols were higher in organic produce (although the Stanford study questioned that finding, because the differences in phenols varied widely between individual studies included in the meta-analysis).

What’s the bottom line? There is no conclusive evidence that shows that organic produce is more nutritious than conventional.

Does organic food lessen our exposure to toxins?

As you learned in part one of this series, organic farming bans the use of most synthetic pesticides. Yes, conventionally grown produce contains higher amounts of synthetic pesticide compared to organically grown. But remember that some pesticides are approved for use in organic farming if other efforts are not successful. So, going with organic does not necessarily mean that your food is 100% chemical-free.

Pesticide exposure has been linked to a number of diseases, including cancer, so it would behoove us to avoid it. However, it is important to note that studies that link pesticide to disease often include large environmental exposures such as those occurring in certain occupations and also through the use of pesticides in our own home. To be sure, we are not only exposed to pesticide through our food. An article in Scientific American pointed out that the grocery stores where we buy our food are sprayed with chemicals to keep insects and rodents out. And how many of us have our homes sprayed with the same chemicals? Food may be a relatively small source of exposure in our lives.

Exposure to pesticides is of more concern with children and pregnant women. In a study of elementary school children, metabolites from organophosphorus pesticide (known to cause neurologic effects in humans and animals) were significantly decreased when the children’s conventional diet was replaced with an organic diet for five days. On a personal note, as a mom, this type of finding motivates me to buy organic for my son (without being too dogmatic about it).

Measuring Pesticides in our Food

The USDA’s Pesticide Data Program (PDP) is responsible for measuring pesticide levels on a variety of foods, focusing especially on those consumed in large quantities by babies and children. The most recent data from this program was published in 2014 and included over 10,000 food items, from fruits and vegetables to infant formula.

The first point that the PDP report wants consumers to know is that nearly all the foods tested (>99%) fell below the chemical tolerance level established by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and “pose no safety concern.” The PDP notes that the EPA considers all exposure routes for pesticides (home, food, and water) when setting these standards, then determines the tolerance level for food. The PDP does not test for all pesticides, including some allowed in organic farming whose safety is questioned by some scientists.

Organic foods tested lower for pesticides than conventional foods. However, of the 400 foods included in the analysis that were labeled organic, one-fifth had detectable levels of pesticide residue. Only one of the pesticides detected was approved for use in organic farming. Also important to note is that other pesticides approved in organic farming (eg. sulfur and copper compounds) whose safety is questioned, are not tested for by the PDP.

If I had to be selective, what should I buy organic?

If you are interested in avoiding synthetic pesticides, you’ll want to familiarize yourself with the Environmental Working Group. They are a not-for-profit, bipartisan organization that uses the PDP data to establish a list of produce that should be bought organic called the “Dirty Dozen” and a list of produce whose conventional versions are acceptable called the “Clean Fifteen.” Here are the 2016 versions of the lists:

Dirty Dozen (recommended to buy organic):

  1. Strawberries
  2. Apples
  3. Nectarines
  4. Peaches
  5. Celery
  6. Grapes
  7. Cherries
  8. Spinach
  9. Tomatoes
  10. Sweet bell peppers
  11. Cherry tomatoes
  12. Cucumbers

The Clean Fifteen (ok to buy conventional)

  1. Avocados
  2. Sweet corn
  3. Pineapples
  4. Cabbage
  5. Sweet peas frozen
  6. Onion
  7. Asparagus
  8. Mangos
  9. Papayas
  10. Kiwi
  11. Eggplant
  12. Honeydew melon
  13. Grapefruit
  14. Cantaloupe
  15. Cauliflower

Notice that the produce listed on the Dirty Dozen generally has thin skin, and in most cases the skin is eaten, whereas those listed on the Clean Fifteen have a thicker protective layer which is not usually consumed.

The EWG has been criticized by some for misusing the PDP’s data to increase fear among consumers and drive sales for organic products (many large-scale organic companies fund EWG). Remember 99% of the produce tested by the PDP, organic or conventional, had pesticide levels considered safe by the EPA.

Remember what’s really important

As you can see, the answer to the question of “Should I buy organic?” is not so clear cut, and comes down to making a personal decision. But one thing is for sure: eating more fruits and vegetables is good for your health! If that means including some conventionally grown produce in your diet (versus none at all), I say go for it. Your primary goal should be meeting your recommended fruit and vegetable intake. Always wash fruits and vegetables thoroughly before consuming them.

Organic on a budget

Sometimes it is not feasible to buy organic because it costs too much. Here are some tips for making it work on a tight budget:

  • Buy local. Visit your local farmers market! You’ll get to talk directly to the person who grew your food and ask about their pesticide practices.
  • Buy seasonal. In-season fruits and vegetables are usually cheaper.
  • Join a CSA. “Community Shared Agriculture” programs allow individuals to purchase memberships in a farm and receive a basket of produce regularly during the growing season.
  • Search for sales. In-season organic produce can often be found on sale.
  • Buy in bulk. For example, Costco carries many organic products in large sizes.
  • Grow your own. This way you know exactly what is used on the crop.

Final Thoughts

The most important diet advice I can give is to eat a variety of healthful foods, including vegetables, fruits, beans, nuts, seeds, whole grains, and lean proteins. If you can manage to buy organic, great! Especially if you have environmental concerns or you want to limit your exposure to synthetic pesticides. But let your primary focus be on consuming plenty of fruits and vegetables throughout your day.

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