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Is organic food worth the extra cost?

By Perrin Braun, November 17, 2021


Consumer concern over the safety of their food has grown exponentially during the past few years. The demand for organically grown food, which is often perceived as healthier and safer, is bigger than ever before, with many storefronts proudly proclaiming that they stock up on organic products. But do organic foods have as much of an impact on your health as they do on your wallet? Health experts and consumers have spent countless hours debating whether organic foods are more nutritious and safer than conventional foods. Making a commitment to healthy eating is a great step towards a healthier life, but organics may not be the be-all-end-all

What does organic mean?

The term “organic” refers to the way that food is grown and processed. Very specific requirements must be met and maintained in order for a product to be certified organic. Essentially, farmers are not allowed to use synthetic pesticides, bioengineered genes (GMOs), petroleum-based fertilizers, and sewage sludge-based fertilizers. Organic livestock must have access to the outdoors and be given organic feed. They may not be given antibiotics, growth hormones, or any animal by-products.

Here’s the tricky part: it’s easy to confuse food-labeling terms like “free-range,” “hormone free,” or “natural” with organic. Unlike organics, these terms are not regulated by law. The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) has created an organic seal that is put on all products that meet its organic standards—namely, restricting the amount and residue of pesticides, hormones, and antibiotics that are used during the conventional growing process. You can tell that a product is organic by looking at the label. Here are some hints:

Food labeled “100% organic” has no synthetic ingredients and can legally use the USDA organic seal. Food labeled “organic” has a minimum of 95% organic ingredients. It is eligible to use the USDA organic seal. Food labeled “made with organic ingredients” must contain at least 70% organic ingredients. It is not eligible for the USDA seal.

Note that the USDA hasn’t set standards for organic seafood or cosmetics. Meat, eggs, poultry, and dairy that are labeled as “organic” must come from animals that have never received antibiotics or growth hormones. The problem is that you can expect to pay 50 to 100% more for organic foods because they’re more labor-intensive to grow, and without some assistance from pesticides, the net yield can often be unpredictable or unfavorable.

Is organic food healthier?

To investigate the claim that organic food is higher in nutrients than its traditional counterparts, researchers from Stanford University evaluated nearly 250 studies comparing the nutrients in organic vs. traditional foods (fruits, vegetables, grains, poultry, meat, and eggs), and the health outcomes of eating these foods. Their study concluded that there is very little difference in nutritional content between the two types of foods, aside from slightly higher phosphorous levels in many organic foods, and a higher omega-3 fatty acid content in organic milk and chicken.

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However, the real answer may be more complicated than a simple “yes” or “no”. It’s difficult for studies to uncover subtle effects of our environment, or what we eat, on our health because too many outside influences get in the way. Here’s another reason: when it comes to nutritional quality, produce varies tremendously whether you buy organic or not. For instance, one carrot may have two or three times more vitamin A than the one sitting right next to it. This disparity can be attributed to a whole variety of factors: differences in the genetic makeup of different varieties, the ripeness of the produce when it was picked, even the weather. So, if you really want to find the most nutritious fruits and vegetables, organic isn’t necessarily the best route, but unfortunately there isn’t a better guide (until scientists come up with something new!).

Is organic food safer?

The Stanford researchers found that organic produce had an edge where issues of food safety were concerned, with 30% lower pesticide residues than conventionally-grown foods. However, pesticide levels in both organic and non-organic food were within allowable safety limit. The government established a limit to the amount of pesticides that can safely be used in growing and processing foods, and the amount of pesticide residue that is permitted on food. The 1996 Food Quality Protection Act also set tougher standards to protect infants and children from pesticide risks.

However, it’s still not clear what all this means for your health. Just because foods aren’t going over the acceptable limit for pesticides doesn’t mean that they’re safe for everyone. The Environmental Working Group (EWG) did note that children may be at a greater risk for some pesticides than adults because their immune systems are not fully developed. No studies have evaluated the health effects of pesticide exposure on pregnant women, either.

The good news is that you can buy organic without spending too much money by being choosier about the types of organic products that you buy. The EWG released its 2013 list of fruits and vegetables that are the most and the least likely to be contaminated by pesticides. To compile the list, the EWG used over 28,000 samples taken by the USDA and FDA to measure the level of contamination. Each individual sample was given a score of 1-100 in six measures of contamination. The best (Clean 15) and the worst (Dirty Dozen) were then gathered from the results.

The Dirty Dozen:

1. Apples 2. Celery 3. Sweet bell peppers 4. Peaches 5. Strawberries 6. Nectarines – imported 7. Grapes 8. Spinach 9. Lettuce 10. Cucumbers 11. Blueberries – domestic 12. Potatoes

For those of you who are concerned about pesticide contamination, the EWG advises people to purchase the organically-grown version of the above items. The group also recommends that people consider purchasing organic green beans and kale. These foods did not meet the traditional Dirty Dozen criteria, but they were found to be frequently contaminated with pesticides that are toxic to the nervous system. 

The Clean Fifteen:

1. Onions 2. Sweet Corn 3. Pineapples 4. Avocado 5. Cabbage 6. Sweet Peas 7. Asparagus 8. Mangoes 9. Eggplant 10. Kiwi 11. Cantaloupe – domestic 12. Sweet Potatoes 13. Grapefruit 14. Watermelon 15. Mushrooms

According to the EWG, it is not necessary to purchase organic versions of the “Clean Fifteen” since they tested the lowest in pesticide contamination. Whether or not you choose to buy organic produce, you can reduce pesticide reside with the following tips:

Wash and scrub produce under streaming water to remove dirt, bacteria and surface pesticide residues, even produce with inedible skins such as cantaloupe. Do not use soap. Remove the peel from fruits and vegetables. Remove the outer leaves of leafy vegetables.

Eat your fruits and vegetables!

Even if you decide not to buy organic, the EWG says that the health benefits of a diet rich in fruits and vegetables outweighs the risks of pesticide exposure because eating conventionally-grown produce is better than not eating any at all. Variety and moderation are important parts of any diet, and both conventionally-grown and organic produce can be part of a healthy eating plan so long as you try to make whole fruits and vegetables a priority when choosing what to eat! InsideTracker can take all the guesswork out of choosing a healthy diet, so if you’re wondering which foods can best suit your unique needs, sign up for a plan today!

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