Organic food sections at grocery stores seem to keep expanding to meet growing demand. Organic foods are now available in nearly 75% of grocery stores, and sales continue to rise. There is plenty of confusion surrounding organic foods and whether they’re superior to their conventional counterparts. Prices for organic foods and beverages are almost always higher, but are they worth the cost? Here’s everything you need to know to answer the question “Should you buy organic food?”.
What does organic mean?
Before we get into the pros and cons of organic food, let’s review what it actually means for something to be organic. Farmers and producers can’t just throw the word “organic” on whatever product they want – products (in the U.S.) have to be certified by the United States Department of Agriculture and meet specific requirements in order to be labeled as organic.
Organic foods must be grown and processed without synthetic pesticides, synthetic fertilizers, genetically modified ingredients, antibiotics, hormones, or artificial colors and flavors. Products that contain at least 95% organic ingredients are allowed to display the USDA Organic seal and be labeled as organic.
Even though organic foods are not treated with synthetic chemicals, that doesn’t mean that they are grown with only soil, water, and sunlight. Organic foods are often treated with pesticides and fertilizers – but ones that are derived from natural sources. That doesn’t mean they’re necessarily safer, it just means they aren’t synthetic or man-made.
The “opposite” of organic food is often referred to as “conventional” food, which is regulated to ensure that all ingredients are Generally Regarded as Safe (GRAS), but not much more than that. The USDA doesn’t regulate the types of fertilizers, pesticides, antibiotics, or hormones used in conventional food as long as all ingredients are GRAS for public consumption. Additives that are GRAS have been shown to be safe under the conditions that the product is intended to be used for. For example, an artificial flavor might be GRAS if it’s been used as a flavoring without any associated adverse effects or if it’s been researched in a lab and shown no adverse effects. The US considers many ingredients to be safe that are actually banned for use in other countries – such as Red Dye No. 40, Yellow Dye No. 5, and Atrazine, an herbicide heavily used in the US. Organic food avoids these additives that are banned in other countries, yet GRAS in the US.
Why does organic food cost more?
Organic food costs more than conventional food because it is far more costly to produce. Without the help of synthetic fertilizers, growing organic produce requires a lot more labor and often results in less yield, so farmers can only grow so much on the amount of land they have. Farmers also lose crop yield during times when cover crops are planted to restore soil fertility, while conventional growers continue to grow during those periods. Avoiding and treating illness for organically raised animals can be costly as well, since quick-acting antibiotics aren’t used.
Becoming certified by the USDA isn’t cheap, either. Applying for organic certification and paying the annual inspection fee can set farmers back thousands of dollars in order to maintain their organic status, a cost that is passed on to consumers. For this reason, smaller food producers may follow organic farming practices but not apply for the USDA Organic certification.
Is organic food more nutritious?
Many people expect that higher nutrient values come along with the higher price tag and pesticide-free nature of organic produce – and some researchers have found this to be true. However, several studies have found that organic produce does not have significantly higher levels of vitamins, minerals, or polyphenols than conventional produce. Still, research comparing the nutritional value of organic and conventional produce is very limited and depends on many variables. The nutrient content of produce can vary based on the region and type of soil it was grown in, when it was picked, and many more factors.
The soil that conventional produce is grown in is used over and over again, with additional synthetic fertilizers used between each growing cycle. This allows for constant production, but may mean that the nutrient content of the soil decreases over time. One study shows that the nutrient value of produce has been decreasing over time, largely thanks to genetically engineered seeds and soil treatments that aim for high yields, rather than high nutrient value. That could mean that organic produce has a leg up, since its soil is fertilized naturally with nutrient-rich plant matter, which may then be passed on to the produce itself. While research hasn’t yet shown that organic produce has higher nutrient content thanks to organic soil, it’s still a possibility to consider.
As for eggs, organic eggs have significantly more vitamin D, vitamin E, and vitamin A than conventional eggs. Organic eggs are also higher in omega-3’s than conventional eggs. These nutrient boosts are a result of the organic feed and grass that organically-raised hens eat.
When it comes to meat, organically raised animals have been found to contain more omega-3 fatty acids, anti-inflammatory fats that are great for brain health, heart health, and more. Since organically raised animals are required to have the ability to graze on a pasture, much of the nutritional difference is accredited to the animals being grass-fed, rather than the avoidance of hormones and antibiotics. To my knowledge, there’s no research comparing the nutritional value of grass-fed, non-organic meat to organic meat. Studies have focused on grain-fed versus grass-fed (often showing higher nutrient value in grass-fed meat), but it’s not clear whether grass-fed beef gets even better if it goes a step further and follows organic requirements as well. The USDA recently withdrew its regulations of the term “Grass Fed,” so there’s no way to know how much access to grass non-organically raised, grass-fed animals have had.
Is organic food better for the environment?
Environmental concern is a top reason why many people buy organic foods. Organic farming reduces the synthetic pollutants that build up in groundwater and runoff into nearby water sources. It also preserves soil health by using practices such as rotating crops and planting crops that release complementary nutrients into soil close together. This allows for rich, nutrient-dense soil without relying on synthetic supplementation.
Crop rotations and the use of non-genetically modified seeds help improve biodiversity, which improve crops’ resiliency through climate changes. All in all, organic farming utilises practices that consider the long-term effect on the environment and take a proactive approach to addressing environmental issues. There’s more to say about environmental concerns in general than I could write about here, but here’s my opinion regarding organic foods: organic farming seems to be more beneficial for the environment in the long run compared to conventional farming.
Organic or farmer’s market? Which is better for the environment?
If you’re deciding between buying organic produce from the store or non-organic local produce from a farmer’s market, I’d opt for the local farmer’s market produce. Many local farmers may use organic practices but not have the means to pay for organic licensing – and if the farmer is right in front of you, you have the opportunity to ask them directly about their practices. Also keep in mind that certified organic tomatoes at the store may still have traveled across the country or across the globe to get to you, while local produce, even if not organic, leaves a much lower carbon footprint on the way to your kitchen. That trade-off could level the playing field when it comes to environmental impact and should definitely be a factor to consider when you purchase with environmental concern in mind.
Should you buy organic food?
Exclusively buying organic food isn’t always feasible if you’re on a budget. My recommendation is to buy organic to the extent that you can afford it. If you’re concerned about synthetic pesticide residue, shop for organic foods when you get the most return on your investment (i.e. when conventional counterparts are grown with lots of pesticides), and buy conventional when those produce items aren’t grown with many pesticides to begin with (see the lists below!).
What I tell my clients who are cancer survivors (and everyone else) is this: if buying organic produce means you’ll end up eating fewer vegetables and fruits due to cost, stick with conventional. All of the major research studies showing the cancer-fighting and disease-fighting benefits of vegetables, fruit and other plant-based foods has been done with people eating conventional diets, not organic food. That means that eating plenty of produce is still healthy for you, even if synthetic pesticides were used.If buying organic means you'll end up eating fewer fruits & vegetables due to cost, stick with conventional! More produce is better than less, even if not organic. https://tinyurl.com/health-organic Click To Tweet
Several studies show that organic produce has more pesticide residue than you might expect, so going broke to keep everything on your list organic may not be your best bet. Buy organic and local if you can, but your main focus should be on buying nutritious foods like fruits, vegetables, fish, legumes, nuts and seeds, and whole grains instead of junk food. Remember – an organic sugar-filled cookie is still a sugar-filled cookie!
Foods to buy organic
As a general rule, I try to buy organic versions of foods that I’ll eat the skin of or can’t peel. So if I’m buying lemons because I’m using the zest in a recipe, I’ll get organic ones. If I just need some lemon juice, I might buy conventional lemons. Most of the nutrients in our fruits and vegetables are concentrated in the skin, so keep that in mind before you start peeling everything to cut down on some synthetic pesticides.
Every year the Environmental Working Group (EWG) releases an updated “Dirty Dozen” list of foods that have the highest pesticide levels when grown conventionally. There are some criticisms of the list and its accuracy, but it still can provide a starting point to help you determine which types of produce are grown with the most synthetic pesticides.
According to EWG’s 2017 findings, these are the foods you’ll want to spend your organic budget on:
- Bell peppers
I also recommend purchasing organic or grass-fed meat and dairy products. All organic meat is at least partially grass-fed (organic animals can also eat organic feed), but not all grass-fed meat is organic. When you can afford meat that’s labeled both grass-fed and organic, go for it! Otherwise, prioritize grass-fed meat over grain-fed meat when possible to reap the higher omega-3 benefits.
Foods you don’t need to buy organic
Just like with the Dirty Dozen, the EWG releases an annual “Clean Fifteen” list of foods that have the lowest pesticide levels when purchased conventionally. When buying organic produce isn’t an option, these are the foods you’re still in the clear with:
- Sweet Corn
- Honeydew melon
How to wash your vegetables and fruit to remove some of the pesticides
You don’t need special washes to rinse pesticides off of produce – simply rinsing with water will do! Washing fruits and vegetables with water for at least 30 seconds can help remove much of the pesticide residue left on the outside of the produce. For sturdy produce like apples and potatoes, use a scrub brush to clean the outside. Remove outer leaves of heads of lettuce or cabbage (the outside usually has more pesticide residue on it), or buy those items organic if you can. Peeling produce and only using the inside can reduce your exposure to pesticides, but keep in mind that the peels of fruits and vegetables are usually jam-packed with nutrients. If you’re planning on using the peel, I recommend buying that item organic!
On a personal note, I buy organic food as often as I can because it aligns with my personal values and fits within my budget. If I someday find myself with a family of 5 that could easily change. Buying organic food or conventional food is a personal choice.
Are there foods that you make sure to buy organic? Which ones, and why?