With the rising price of food, many parents wonder if organic produce is worth the added expense. Conflicting information about why organic produce is — or isn’t — a healthier choice is confusing for consumers. Here are three common reasons for buying organic produce along with arguments for and against each.
Health: Many feel that organically grown fruits and vegetables contain more vitamins and minerals, therefore making organic a healthier choice. However, a recent study concluded that organic produce does not have any significant nutritional benefit over conventionally grown fruits and veggies. (“Are Organic Foods Safer or Healthier Than Conventional Alternatives?”, Annals of Internal Medicine, September 2012) Other studies have come to a different conclusion, such as one report in which organic strawberries were found to have more Vitamin C, as well as a higher total antioxidant activity. (“Fruit and Soil Quality of Organic and Conventional Strawberry Agro Ecosystems”, online journal PLoS One)
Safety: Many are concerned about the pesticide residue in conventionally grown produce. One camp says that the amount of pesticide found on non-organic produce is too low to be of concern; the other says that the long-term effects of these chemicals have not been well studied. The above Annals of Internal Medicine study concluded that organic produce does contain significantly less pesticide residue. Many parents choose organic for their children because of their concern about pesticide-contaminated produce. A study published in April 2008 addressed whether pesticide residue gets into kids’ bodies. This study consisted of two phases — an organic and a conventional diet phase. A small group of children ate conventionally grown produce for three days, then switched to organic. Tests of the children’s urine during both phases showed a significant decrease in metabolites (breakdown products) of pesticides during the organic phase. This led the study authors to conclude that diet is a major source of pesticide exposure in kids. (“The Children’s Pesticide Exposure Study,” Environmental Health Perspectives, April 2008)
However, even the authors of the above study say that there is no definite link between dietary pesticide exposure and health problems. The Environmental Working Group (EWG) says that the benefits of eating fruits and vegetables, whether organic or not, outweigh the risks of pesticide exposure. EWG is a nonprofit environmental group, best known for its annual report, “The Dirty Dozen,” which lists the 12 most pesticide-contaminated fruits and vegetables.
Environment: Some consumers choose organic over conventionally grown produce because they believe organic farming practices to be more environmentally friendly. Most experts agree that organic farming promotes biodiversity of insects and plants, better soil, and less harm to wildlife via synthetic pesticides and fertilizers. (“Organic FAQs,” Nature, April 2004) But there is less agreement on whether organic farming is better for the atmosphere. For example, organically grown cereals release more greenhouse gas per unit than those that are conventionally grown. (“Does organic farming reduce environmental impacts? A meta-analysis of European research,” Journal of Environmental Management, December 2012)
There are valid arguments on both sides regarding the health, safety and environmental impact of conventionally grown versus organically farmed foods. Ultimately, consumers must decide for themselves. In the meantime, one thing all experts seem to agree on is that eating fresh produce — organic or not — is good for overall health.
If you do choose to buy organic produce, it doesn’t have to bust your budget. Start by checking store circulars and sales. Most major grocery chains discount at least one organic fruit or vegetable regularly. Or, try alternative shopping venues such as farmers’ markets. Community-supported agriculture (CSA) is another option. In this farm co-op, you buy a “share” and receive a box of produce weekly throughout the season. You may have to drive to the farm to pick up your box, but you save by cutting out the middle man, and there is the side benefit of seeing exactly where your food is grown. Not all CSAs are organic, so check before you buy. A really inexpensive way to get organic produce is to grow your own. Even apartment dwellers can grow tomatoes in pots or lettuce in a window box.
The EWG publishes an annual report listing the scores of 43 fruits and vegetables by their pesticide load. They call the 12 items highest in pesticide residue “the dirty dozen.” The EWG says that if you are concerned about pesticides in your family’s diet, substituting organic for the “dirty dozen” will significantly reduce your exposure. http://www.ewg.org/foodnews/summary/
The EWG also offers a free guide to low-cost healthy food in their “Good Food on a Tight Budget” shopping guide. This guide lists 100 low-cost, high-nutrient foods along with recipes. http://www.ewg.org/goodfood/