Is Organic Produce Really a Better Option?
We are living in a day and age where conflicting messages about food abound. “Eat carbs!” says the old-school crowd. “Nope, carbs are bad!” say those passionate about paleo. “Fat is where it’s at!” says the LCHF crowd. Versus “be careful, too much meat is bad!” as per the plant-based eaters. Add to that the whole GMO debacle, mixed messages about organic vs. non-organic foods and misleading food labels, and it’s no wonder that the masses are confused.
And while all these issues can’t be clarified in one blog post, we can definitely try to shed more light on one. So let’s focus on the whole organic vs. non-organic produce debate. Is organic produce really a better choice than non-organic options? And is the extra cost involved with living an organic lifestyle really worth it? Here’s what some experts have to say.
Organic Produce 101
But first, let’s just make sure that we’re all on the same page as far as definitions go. What exactly qualifies as organic produce? While the standards for organic farming vary worldwide, it generally promotes practices that aim to recycle resources, encourage ecological balance and conserve our biodiversity. As such, the use of certain pesticides and fertilizers may, therefore, be prohibited or restricted in organic farming. Organic foods are generally also not processed using irradiation, industrial solvents or chemical food additives.
So what exactly are the benefits of following an organic diet? Why are some people willing to pay as much as double the price of non-organic items for its organic counterparts? Here are some of the most important reasons:
- Nutritional value. While research findings on the topic are anything but conclusive, some studies have indicated that organic fruits and veggies may be more nutritious than non-organic ones. A 2014 meta-analyses that looked at the results of 343 peer-reviewed studies on the subject concluded that “organic crops, on average, have higher concentrations of antioxidants, lower concentrations of Cd [cadmium] and a lower incidence of pesticide residues than the non-organic comparators across regions and production seasons.” It is, however, worth noting here that other, similar reviews have had conflicting findings. For example, a 2010 review published in The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition concluded that of the 12 relevant studies looked at, the majority “showed no evidence of differences in nutrition-related health outcomes that result from exposure to organic or conventionally produced foodstuffs.” And while these conflicting findings may cause frustration, it’s perhaps also worth noting that, to date, no study has ever found non-organic produce to have higher levels of nutrients than organic produce. Food for thought, right?
- Pesticide exposure. Organic produce is also believed to reduce your exposure to harmful pesticides. A small-scale study conducted in 2006 looked at the organophosphorus pesticide exposure of 23 elementary school-aged children. Through urinary biomonitoring, it was found that the metabolites associated with organophosphorus pesticides decreased to non-detect levels almost immediately after introducing the children to an organic diet. These levels furthermore remained non-detect until the children resumed their regular, non-organic diets. In conclusion, the research team stated that “an organic diet provides a dramatic and immediate protective effect against exposures to organophosphorus pesticides that are commonly used in agricultural production”.
Is it worth the extra cost?
And while some of these research findings clearly point to an organic diet as potentially being a long-term health investment, very little is currently known about the long-term health impacts (if any) of constant exposure to low levels of certain pesticides. Some studies have pointed to a link between organophosphate exposure in pregnant women and a resultant poorer intellectual development in their offspring. But, until we know whether or not such exposure may also increase the risk for certain diseases, like cancer, it’s up to each one of us to decide whether shelling out the extra bucks to buy organic produce is worth it. And, even more importantly, whether the risk of chronic exposure to low levels of pesticides for both ourselves and our children is one worth taking.
The Bigger Picture
But, before you dash off to fill your trolley with all things organic, just take a moment to step back and critically evaluate the diet of the average American. In 2013 it was estimated that as much as two out of five Americans don’t even eat two of the recommended five daily servings of fruit and vegetables. So perhaps our current problem isn’t that we’re eating too many non-organic fruits and veggies. Perhaps, instead, it’s that we’re not eating enough fruit and veggies of any kind. So if that’s you, put the organic debate on the back burner and just focus on getting in your 5-a-day. The health benefits of this effort alone should be significant.
Then, once your fruit and vegetable intake is up to scratch, and if your budget allows, start to focus on buying more organic produce. And, when you do, try to start with the following species, known for their high pesticide residues: Peaches, apples, sweet bell peppers, celery, strawberries, cherries, spinach, lettuce, imported grapes, carrots, pears, potatoes, and raspberries.
But what if your budget doesn’t allow following an organic diet? Then don’t worry about it too much. The general consensus is that the benefits of eating plenty of natural, unprocessed fruits and veggies by far outweigh the potential risks of pesticide exposure through the ingestion of non-organic produce.
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