A hotly debated topic is whether it’s worth it to buy organic versus conventional produce. Let’s first define what organic means. According to the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA), organic food is produced without the use of most conventional pesticides and no synthetic ingredients, sewage sludge, bioengineering, or radiation (1).
For meat, poultry, eggs, and dairy products this means that the animals are given no antibiotics or growth hormones. In a time when people are trying to cut back on their expenses, it’s hard to justify spending $5 on organic strawberries, but is it worth it? Unfortunately, the literature isn’t there just yet to support whether nutritionally speaking organic is better than conventional. The studies that do exist are flawed and few and far between (2).
However, a recent article on CNN poses the question of whether the benefits of organic come from the fact that they aren’t exposed to as many pesticides as conventional produce (3). The Environmental Working Group is an organization that has created a ranking system of fruits and vegetables based on their likelihood of being contaminated with the highest levels of pesticides (4). The ranking is established after the fruits and vegetables have been washed or peeled. The top offenders include those that have soft skins because they are more likely to absorb pesticides, which they term the “Dirty Dozen” (3). These include: celery, peaches, strawberries, apples, domestic blueberries, nectarines, sweet bell peppers, spinach, kale and collard greens, cherries, potatoes, imported grapes and lettuce. The good news is that there are a good number of non-organic fruits and vegetables without high levels of pesticides. Since many fruits and vegetables have peels, they offer a higher level of protection, which have been dubbed the “Clean 15” since they have little to no pesticides (3). These include onions, avocados, sweet corn, pineapples, mango, sweet peas, asparagus, kiwi fruit, cabbage, eggplant, cantaloupe, watermelon, grapefruit, sweet potatoes and sweet onions.
So what does all of this mean? Do you need to stop eating celery and strawberries if they are conventionally grown? Absolutely not! First off, let me say that the benefits of eating fruits and vegetables far outweigh the risks of the pesticides they may contain. Even for conventional produce the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the USDA set limits for the amount of pesticides that can be used on farms to be safe.
From a nutritional standpoint the scientific literature isn’t there to support buying organic over conventional produce. The advantage of buying organic may come with those fruits and vegetables that have soft skins or are porous as they may absorb more of the pesticides used on them compared to those that have peels and are more durable.
To save on costs, it may be worth checking out your local farmers’ markets since now is a great time to take advantage of summer produce. Inquire as to what types of pesticides are used or consider the option to pick your own. Another idea is to check out Community Supported Agriculture, which is a popular way for people to buy locally grown produce and have it delivered right to their home. With this option you have a better way of determining how the produce you eat is handled, plus it’s fresher since it has traveled a smaller distance from the farm to your table.
- What is organic production? Available at: http://www.nal.usda.gov/afsic/pubs/ofp/ofp.shtml. Accessed: June 9, 2010.
- Williams CM. Nutritional quality of organic food: shades of grey or shades of green? Proc Nutr Soc. 2002 Feb;61(1):19-24
- ‘Dirty dozen’ produce carries more pesticide residue, group says. Available at:
http://www.cnn.com/2010/HEALTH/06/01/dirty.dozen.produce.pesticide/index.html. Accessed: June 9, 2010.
- EWG’s Shopping Guide to Pesticides. Available at: http://www.foodnews.org/faq.php. Accessed: June 9, 2010.