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Is Organic Food Better For You? Healthier? It’s Complicated.

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Food for thought.

organic produce food like beries tomatoes chives plums squash

More and more organic food options are out there, compared to even a few years ago. Once limited to crunchy indie grocery stores and local farm stands, shopping and eating organic has gotten so popular that in 2015, Costco surpassed Whole Foods as the number one retailer of organic food. But is organic food better or healthier? The answer is not so simple. Let’s break it down.

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organic edamame with sliced lemon garlic parsley food

What Does “Organic” Food Mean?

According to the U.S.D.A., “certified organic foods are grown and processed according to federal guidelines.These guidelines address, among many factors, soil quality, animal raising practices, pest and weed control, and use of additives.” Organic food producers “rely on natural substances and physical, mechanical, or biologically-based farming methods.”

Practically speaking, different categories of certified organic food meet different requirements.

  • Organic produce: The soil must not have had prohibited substances, like synthetic fertilizers or pesticides, applied for three years prior to harvest. Also prohibited: using sewage sludge as fertilizer — this is a thing!? — irradiation, and using antibiotics and growth hormones on livestock.
  • Processed foods: Processed food cannot contain artificial preservatives, colors, or flavors. The ingredients must all be organic, with some minor exceptions, like baking soda in baked goods.
  • Across all categories: No GMOs, or Genetically Modified Organisms. Some genetic modifications are developed to make things like cool apple hybrids or more nutrient-dense rice. But GMO concerns, as pertains to organic labeling, stems largely from seeds modified to be pesticide tolerant. Monsanto has led this, producing huge quantities of seeds tolerant of glyphosate, or Roundup. This means that pesticides can be sprayed over farm fields, on crops and weeds alike, without killing the crop itself. This Harvard University article is a helpful read if you are more interested in GMOs.

mixed fresh organic berries in bowl for shortcakes

Is Organic Food Healthier or Better? The Science, Pros, and Cons.

The most obvious, and most-cited, benefit of eating organic is avoidance of pesticides. And according to the Mayo Clinic, a growing body of evidence shows “some potential health benefits of organic foods when compared with conventionally grown foods.” Specifically, studies have shown that organic food contains:

  • Moderately greater nutrients in some categories, like flavenoids found in dark berries, for example
  • More omega-3 fatty acids due to better-quality livestock feed
  • Fewer toxic metals, like cadmium, in organic grains
  • Less pesticide residue
  • Less chance of producing antibiotic-resistant infections due to limited antibiotic use among livestock.

That said, these studies have noted only limited differences between conventional and organic nutrition levels. However, University of California-Davis notes that “pesticides can lead to neurodevelopmental issues and are strongly associated with cancer.”

Also worth considering: the health of the agricultural workers picking the produce. These workers face much larger levels of pesticide exposure. In fact, Bayer, which owns Monsanto, which makes the ubiquitous pesticide Roundup, currently is in litigation, negotiating a $10 billion settlement against existing and future complainants who have or may develop cancers like non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma as a result of glyphosate (Roundup) exposure. The World Health Organization categorizes glyphosate as a “probable carcinogen.” Also, organic produce is also between 10 and 50 percent more expensive than conventional produce.

kale salad with corn and tomatoes and croutons

We asked registered dietitian Beth Ceccarelli, R.D., L.D.N., her thoughts.

“If you have the money and organic makes you feel safer, go for it,” she says. “But if it’s a choice between eating fruits and vegetables that are organic vs. not eating the produce at all, you’re getting more nutritional benefit from conventional than not having something at all because it’s not organic.”

In other words, better to have your fruits and vegetables than no fruits and vegetables at all.

Navigating Your Grocery Shop

Maybe you feel that organic food is a healthier and better choice for you, but struggle to eat 100 percent organic.  There may be a good middle ground. That middle ground is knowing which foods absorb the most and least pesticides.

Enter the Environmental Working Group (EWG)’s well-known list of the “Dirty Dozen” and “Clean 15.” These lists share the produce items that contain the most and least pesticide residue.

The top offenders on the Dirty Dozen? Strawberries, spinach, kale, nectarines, and apples. Think leafy or soft produce where the entire leaf or skins gets eaten. These may be the best choices for organic.

The least-concerning produce includes avocados, pineapple, corn (non-GMO), asparagus, pineapple, and cauliflower. These foods have the least pesticide residue. Think heartier produce and fruits and vegetables with thick skins or peels.

shucked ears of corn on wood

Do you eat organic? Why? How often? Share in the comments.

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