Should I Eat Organic? When Does It Really Matter?

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Should I Eat Organic? When Does It Really Matter?

March 9, 2011

Should we eat organic?

The Environmental Working Group (EWG) conducted a study to see which fruits and vegetables had the highest and lowest levels of pesticides. Here’s what they found:

“Dirty Dozen”
(In other words, try to buy these organic)

  1. Celery
  2. Peaches
  3. Strawberries
  4. Apples
  5. Blueberries
  6. Nectarines
  7. Sweet Bell Pepper
  8. Spinach
  9. Kale/Collard Greens
  10. Cherries
  11. Potatoes
  12. Grapes (Imported)

 

“Clean 15”
(Lowest in pesticides, probably don’t need to buy organic)

  1. Onions
  2. Avocado
  3. Sweet Corn (Frozen)
  4. Pineapples
  5. Mango
  6. Sweet Peas (Frozen)
  7. Asparagus
  8. Kiwi Fruit
  9. Cabbage
  10. Eggplant
  11. Cantaloupe (Domestic)
  12. Watermelon
  13. Grapefruit
  14. Sweet Potatoes
  15. Honeydew Melon

Reference: Environmental Working Group

Organic food choices fill supermarket shelves – and it’s not just at the Whole Foods and other natural food stores where you would expect to find them. Even Wal-Mart now offers organic selections. Many people happily cough up the almost double it sometimes costs to go organic whereas others balk at such a high price for a food that usually tastes no different than its conventional counterpart. So who’s right? Well, it turns out that it depends.

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 products need to be produced from animals that have never been given antibiotics or hormones and who have been fed organic crop. Organic crops must be grown free of conventional pesticides, free of fertilizers made with synthetic ingredients or sewage sludge, and without bioengineering or use of ionizing radiation. The USDA is careful to note than an organic seal does not mean that a food is healthier or safer than its conventionally grown equivalent.

In fact, a 2010 review looking at studies of organic foods and health benefits over the past 50 years determined that there’s not enough good data to say one way or the other if organic foods are healthier. Of the studies that had been done, the only one that found a health difference showed that the risk of eczema was decreased in infants who ate strictly organic dairy products. Overall, there just isn’t enough good information to say.

As for safety – a study of preschool children in Seattle found that kids who ate conventional diets had significantly higher levels of urine pesticides than the kids who ate organic. But higher urine pesticides haven’t been connected to real health outcomes, although intuitively it seems like a good idea to minimize consumption of toxic chemicals. (See the sidebar for a list of the highest and lowest pesticide-containing produce.)

Ultimately, it may not be the health and safety for the consumer that will tip you one way or the other with organic foods, but many consider the broader health and environmental outcomes including the working conditions of farm laborers and their exposure to pesticides which can contribute to serious health outcomes including birth defects and cancers. Furthermore, some consider the extraordinary amount of environmental resources and energy go into shipping a crop from halfway around the world to your local grocery store. Though, honestly, these days it’s not unusual to see organic food that was grown abroad. This becomes more common as an increasing number of companies jump on the organic bandwagon.

At the end of the day, everyone has to make their own decision whether or not to buy organic based on the limited information we have on whether or not organic foods are worth it. It may be that the spirit of organic foods (which you can often tap into at a local farmer’s market or by nurturing your own garden)  -- like good use of natural resources, minimal use of toxic compounds, sustainable farming and supporting local business -- is more important than whether or not the food is actually grown organic.

References:

Dangour AD, et al. Nutrition-related health effects of organic foods: a systematic review. American Journal of Clinical Nutrition. 2010; 92: 203-210.

Curl CL, et al (2003). Organophosphorus pesticide exposure of urban and suburban preschool children with organic and conventional diets. Environmental Health Perspectives. 2003; 111: 377-380.

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