The Big “O”….Should We Be Buying Organic or Not?

As I began to change my eating habits, I knew I needed a larger intake of fruits and vegetables.  Once I really started paying attention at the grocery store, I realized that I had so many options… the biggest of which was organic vs. non-organic options.  I didn’t know what to do.  My gut said that “organic” was one of those words which to me were synonymous with “healthy”.  However, my purse was saying girl… puhlese!  You will go broke trying to buy this stuff!  So, I told my brain and my purse to shut for a minute while I did a bit of research to answer the question:  Are organic foods healthier and/or safer than their non-organic brothers and sisters?

The answer to that question is not as clear cut as you might think.  First, I had to get clear on what organic actually means.  In order to get the USDA organic seal, foods need to have been grown, handled and processed by certified organic facilities.  These facilities  must be wholly organic.  Meat, poultry, eggs and dairy need to be produced from animals who were not given hormones or antibiotics and who have been fed organic crops.  Organic crops must be free of conventional pesticides, synthetic fertilizers and without bioengineering.  The USDA, however, notes that the organic seal DOES NOT mean that a food is healthier or safer than its nonorganic equivalent.  Moreover, there was a review in 2010 looking at various studies of organic foods and health benefits over the past 50 years.  The conclusion was that there is not enough good data to determine one way or the other if organic foods are healthier (Dangour et al.,2010).

There was a subsequent review in 2012 (Smith-Spangler et. al.,2012) that concluded that there was a lack of evidence that organic foods are significantly more nutritious than nonorganic foods.  However, they also concluded that the consumption of organic foods may reduce exposure to pesticide residues and antibiotic-resistant bacteria.

One more tidbit I found interesting.  The Environmental Work Group (EWG, 2012) conducted a study to see which fruits and vegetables, grown in the conventional/non-organic fashion,  had the highest and lowest levels of pesticides.  They declared the following foods to be the ”Dirty Dozen” (foods you should buy organic) :

  • Celery
  • Peaches
  • Strawberries
  • Apples
  • Blueberries
  • Nectarines
  • Sweet Bell Peppers
  • Spinach
  • Kale/Collard greens
  • Cherries
  • Potatoes
  • Grapes (imported)

Well, dang!  If these are the dirty dozen… what is actually clean?  Here is what the EWG terms the “Clean 15” (lowest in pesticides – making choosing the organic version less necessary)

  • Onions
  • Avocado
  • Sweet corn (frozen variety)
  • Pineapples
  • Mango
  • Sweet peas (frozen variety)
  • Asparagus
  • Kiwi
  • Cabbage
  • Eggplant
  • Cantaloupe (domestic_
  • Watermelon
  • Grapefruit
  • Sweet potatoes
  • Honeydew melon

My next question was:

Are there downsides to buying organic?

  • One common concern with organic food is cost. Organic foods typically cost more than do their conventional counterparts. Higher prices are due, in part, to more-expensive farming practices.
  • Because organic fruits and vegetables aren’t treated with waxes or preservatives, they may spoil faster. Also, some organic produce may look less than perfect — odd shapes, varying colors or smaller sizes. However, organic foods must meet the same quality and safety standards as those of conventional foods.

Food safety tips

Here are some common sense food safety tips (courtesy of the Mayo Clinic) that I’ve employed in my daily nutrition regiment that I found to be extremely helpful. Whether you go totally organic or opt to mix conventional and organic foods, be sure to keep these tips in mind:
  • Select a variety of foods from a variety of sources. This will give you a better mix of nutrients and reduce your likelihood of exposure to a single pesticide.
  • Buy fruits and vegetables in season when possible. To get the freshest produce, ask your grocer what day new produce arrives. Or buy food from your local farmers market.
  • Read food labels carefully. Just because a product says it’s organic or contains organic ingredients doesn’t necessarily mean it’s a healthier alternative. Some organic products may still be high in sugar, salt, fat or calories.
  • Wash and scrub fresh fruits and vegetables thoroughly under running water. Washing helps remove dirt, bacteria and traces of chemicals from the surface of fruits and vegetables. Not all pesticide residues can be removed by washing, though. You can also peel fruits and vegetables, but peeling can mean losing some fiber and nutrients.

So remember, there is no evidence that organic foods are healthier.  However, there is some compelling evidence that we can avoid the consumption of some potentially unhealthy toxins by avoiding some nonorganic foods.

Until next time, be well!

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