Is Organic Produce Healthier Than Conventional?by Rob Siabanis MS, RDNNutrition
One common phenomenon in the health and wellness world is the ebb and flow of trends. Every few years, a diet, ideology, or product is presented as the superior alternative, often with some promising preliminary research to back it up. However, many such trends lose their credibility when researchers put them to the test with carefully designed studies.
While organic foods have been available since the 1940s, their public profile grew substantially in the early 2000s, when the USDA released its national standards for organic products. Since then, the organic sector has grown yearly due to increased consumer awareness and adoption by conventional farmers. Shoppers who select organic report a variety of drivers, such as improved nutrient quality, pesticide exposure, and ecological impact. But does the research support the selection of organic products over conventional?
In this article, we will delve into the research, comparing conventional and organic produce, their safety and health benefits, and see whether organic is worth it. Because of the considerable differences in the regulation and production methods of organic produce and animal products, this article will focus on organic fruits and vegetables.
What is organic produce?
According to the USDA, organic produce is grown on soil that has not been exposed to prohibited substances for three years before harvest. Banned substances include a variety of artificial chemicals such as pesticides, fungicides, and synthetic fertilizers. Farmers can use natural compounds instead of synthetic ones, such as spearmint oil, citronella, and horticultural vinegar.
Organic farmers must undergo several stages to receive the USDA organic certification, such as developing a thorough organic system plan and undergoing a thorough inspection. After certification, the operation is inspected yearly to maintain the organic label.
Is organic produce safer?
While the effort and persistence needed to receive the organic seal are impressive, does the research show that organic produce is safer? It appears so. Several studies have shown that selecting organic foods for even five to seven days lowers levels of pesticide residues in the blood of adults (1) and children (2). Furthermore, one systematic literature review (a study of studies) found that organic produce had less than half the cadmium content as their conventionally grown counterparts (3). Cadmium is a toxic heavy metal found in the food supply, and one of its potential sources includes synthetic fertilizers used in conventional agriculture.
But is the reduction in pesticide and cadmium exposure from selecting organic foods enough to impact our health? Two large studies have found that choosing organic food is linked with a reduced risk of developing non-Hodgkin lymphoma (4) and becoming overweight or obese (5). In these studies, the authors did take into account other factors, such as overall diet quality, physical activity, income, and education level, making the link between health and synthetic chemical exposure stronger. While the verdict is still out on the role of produce-related pesticides in developing diseases, evidence shows that choosing organic reduces our exposure to them.
Is organic produce healthier?
An extensive survey conducted in Sweden asked consumers why they select organic food. While they reported various drivers, the most common one was that organic foods are more nutritious and health-promoting than conventional ones (6). Does the research support these motivations?
Several studies comparing the nutritional quality of organic and conventional produce have found that organic fruits and vegetables do not contain significantly more vitamins and minerals than conventionally-grown crops (7). But the health-promoting properties of plants also come from the powerful phytonutrients they have.
Interestingly, organic produce does appear to be significantly higher in these phytonutrients, compounds that can have anti-inflammatory and antioxidant properties (3). For example, researchers have found that organic strawberries have substantially more antioxidant and anti-cancer phytonutrients (8). These potent plant compounds benefit not only our body and mind but also the billions of bacteria that make up our gut flora, which in turn produce potentially health-promoting short-chain fatty acids (9).
Is organic produce worth the price increase?
The main barrier when it comes to purchasing organic produce is its price. The price difference varies significantly based on location, season, and store, but organic is usually 10-40% more expensive than conventionally-grown produce (10). The substantial cost of organic produce can naturally lead one to wonder if they are worth the expense.
Of course, this is a choice each individual can make on their own by weighing the pros and cons. However, selecting organic doesn’t need to be absolute. This is because not all produce is the same regarding pesticide exposure, cost, and phytonutrient content.
The Environmental Working Group (EWG) is a non-profit organization that analyzes FDA test data and publishes yearly reports on the most and least contaminated conventional produce. The first list, called the Dirty Dozen, contains the twelve fruits and vegetables highest in residual pesticides (11). In contrast, the Clean Fifteen outlines the produce with the lowest detectable pesticides (12). The two lists are included below.
Dirty Dozen: 1) strawberries 2) spinach 3) kale, collard, and mustard greens 4) nectarines 5) apples 6) grapes 7) bell and hot peppers 8) cherries 9) peaches 10) pears 11) celery 12) tomatoes
Clean Fifteen: 1) avocados 2) sweet corn 3) pineapple 4) onions 5) papaya 6) sweet peas (frozen) 7) asparagus 8) honeydew melon 9) kiwi 10) cabbage 11) mushrooms 12) cantaloupe 13) mangoes 14) watermelon 15) sweet potatoes
Therefore, one could take a step toward purchasing organic by selecting organic items from the dirty dozen list, such as strawberries, spinach, and cherries. This would result in a triple benefit: reduced pesticide exposure, more phytonutrients per serving, and increased savings from not going fully organic.
In sum, organic foods are not a mere passing trend. Promising research shows them to be lower in residual pesticides and richer in healthful phytonutrients. In addition, there are cost-effective ways of benefiting from organic foods, such as selecting produce from the EWG’s dirty dozen list.
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