I went to the grocery store a few days ago to buy produce. The organic strawberries were $6.99 while the regular ones were $5.49. Is it worth $1.50 to get basically the same thing? How about Gala apples? Conventionally grown were $1.29 and organic $1.99.
Is buying organic worth it? Maybe. More on that below.
What are organic foods?
Defining “organic” foods is complex because there are numerous rules and standards set forth in Federal Law. According to the USDA, organic foods are:
- Produced by farmers who emphasize the use of renewable resources and the conservation of soil and water to enhance environmental quality for future generations.
- Organic meat, poultry, eggs, and dairy products come from animals that are given no antibiotics or growth hormones.
- Organic food is produced without using most conventional pesticides; fertilizers made with synthetic ingredients or sewage sludge; bioengineering; or ionizing radiation.
- Before a product can be labeled ‘organic,’ a Government-approved certifier inspects the farm where the food is grown to make sure the farmer is following all the rules necessary to meet USDA organic standards.
- Companies that handle or process organic food before it gets to your local supermarket or restaurant must be certified, too.
Any product labeled as organic on the product description or packaging must be USDA certified. Certified organic food has this seal on its label:
There are various gradients of organic. “100% Organic” means all the ingredients are organic. “Organic” means that 95% of the ingredients are organic. “Made with Organic” means that at least 70% of the ingredients are organic. “Organic Ingredients” means less than 70% of the ingredients are organic and cannot use the organic label.
Note that “organic” DOES NOT mean that no chemicals or pesticides are used. There are some synthetic pesticides that are approved for organic use, but are considered non-toxic and considered not harmful to the environment.
Potential Benefits of Organic Foods
There are a few areas of potential benefit of organic foods:
1. Fewer Pesticides and Heavy Metals
Organic food are grown with no or fewer pesticides and chemicals. While conventionally grown foods use pesticides and chemicals within safe limits, organic foods have less exposure to chemicals and testing finds much lower chemical residue in organic foods. Plus, testing has found that organic foods are typically lower in cadmium – a heavy metal that can damage the kidney and liver at toxic doses.
However, the USDA, EPA and many toxicologists say that we consumers should not worry about pesticide and chemical residue in our foods at the levels they appear. But not all combinations of the over 900 approved pesticides have been tested. It is possible some combinations are not safe.
Overall, based on my research, the conclusion of experts is that conventionally grown produce and other foods are safe. That being said, we can’t be 100% sure. It also doesn’t seem to be a good idea to be consuming trace levels of chemicals that are known carcinogens when consumed in much higher doses. But, there is no proof that consuming conventionally grown foods is a health risk.
2. Organic Might be Healthier
Some studies have found higher levels of antioxidants in organic foods as compared to conventionally grown. Organic meats and dairy have been found to have higher levels of Omega-3 Fatty Acids which have been found to beneficial to health. Additionally, organic meat and dairy are produced without antibiotics which is a positive.
However, there appears to be little scientific proof that organic foods are healthier. A meta-study from the Annals of Internal Medicine found “There is generally no difference in nutritional value or risk for bacterial contamination between organic and conventional foods.”
“Some believe that organic food is always healthier and more nutritious,” said Crystal Smith-Spangler, MD MS, lead author of the meta-study. “My colleagues and I were a little surprised that we didn’t find that.” Further, in Scientific American, Joseph D. Rosen, emeritus professor of food toxicology at Rutgers, stated that “any consumers who buy organic food because they believe that it contains more healthful nutrients than conventional food are wasting their money.”
Note that there don’t seem to be claims that organic food is less healthy.
3. Possible Environmental Benefits
This study, which was a meta-analysis of European research, found that organic farming did provide environmental benefits with respect to acreage used as compared to conventional farming. These benefits included: higher soil organic matter content, lower nutrient losses, lower nitrous oxide emissions and lower ammonia emissions per unit of field area. Additionally, organic farms had lower energy requirements.
That sounds good, but its not so simple. Because conventional farming produces much higher yields per acre, the study also concluded that conventional produce was actually more environmentally friendly on a per unit of produce basis! Similarly, greater land use of organic farming was pointed out in this article in Scientific American: “The unfortunate truth is that until organic farming can rival the production output of conventional farming, its ecological cost due to the need for space is devastating. As bad as any of the pesticides and fertilizers polluting the world’s waterways from conventional agriculture are, it’s a far better ecological situation than destroying those key habitats altogether [due to organic farming’s greater acreage needs].”
So, should we buy organic food?
Obviously, this is an individual choice. Organic food is usually more expensive and as discussed above, most of the supposed benefits are unproven. But, it may be worth the cost because there might be benefits and little possible downside (other than cost).
Personally, I buy organic strawberries and apples (usually) and a few other items of produce and just buy conventional for the rest. My thinking is based on the Environmental Working Group’s tests of conventionally grown food and it’s annual lists of the “Dirty Dozen” and “Clean Fifteen” foods in terms of risk of containing residual pesticides. Here is the EWG list for 2018:
Dirty Dozen: The list, in descending order, strawberries, spinach, nectarines, apples, grapes, peaches, cherries, pears, tomatoes, celery, potatoes and sweet bell peppers.
Clean Fifteen: produce least likely to contain pesticide residues included avocados, sweet corn, pineapples, cabbages, onions, frozen sweet peas, papayas, asparagus, mangoes, eggplants, honeydews, kiwis, cantaloupes, cauliflower and broccoli.
What is key is buying and eating more fruits and vegetables, regardless whether they are conventionally or organically grown. This study estimated that if Americans increased their fruit and vegetable intake by one serving a day, “approximately 20,000 cancer cases per year could be prevented . . . while up to 10 cancer cases per year could be caused by the added pesticide consumption.” Seems like a good trade off.