There is a lot in the news and media these days about the health benefits of organically grown produce. But is organic always better than conventional produce?
The answer may surprise you, especially coming from me!
When clients ask me if they should be eating organic or conventional produce (and I get that question a lot!), my first response is “How many servings are you eating a day right now? The USDA recommends 9 servings of fruits and vegetables a day." Many times the answer is "Far less than that!"
I ask this because the most important thing they can do to improve their diet start including vegetables and fruits, whatever kind it is! Then we can start talking about the quality of that food.
Produce, especially green leafy vegetables, are high in fiber and nutrition that will keep us satisfied throughout the day.
If your stomach is full, you are less likely to be tempted to eat processed foods containing fillers and added ingredients. These are empty calories that contribute to weight gain and illness.
Do you shy away from buying organic food because it tends to be higher in price? Or maybe it seems harder to find organic produce in your local supermarket. For some, the idea of cooking is enough to keep them from eating vegetables preferring the convenience of eating foods from a box or jar, or take-out. Whatever the reason, I hope to help you decide what is right for you right now.
It is not a matter of all or nothing.
There can be a happy medium that will ensure you will be eating for better health and mind!
First of all, let’s examine what it means when we talk about organic and conventional produce. Since I wanted to make sure I had my facts straight, I did some research at the Organic Consumers website.
Food grown using organic methods
According to Organic Consumers, farmers who grow organic foods work with nature using techniques to achieve good crop yields without harming the natural environment or the people who live and work in it. While many of the farming methods used in the past are still useful today, that doesn't mean it is behind the times. Organic farming takes the best of these time tested methods and combines them with modern scientific knowledge. Chemicals and pesticides are avoided by using Mother Nature to help the crops instead. Techniques such as using compost and crop rotation to enrich the soil, mulching to reduce weeds and retain moisture, and careful planning and sowing of plants that are naturally resistant to bugs and disease, all ensure better crop yields. Farmers also use methods to attract natural predators that eat pests, use natural pesticides, and plant many plant varieties to increase genetic diversity and minimize disease.
These practices, in addition to producing healthy food for us, are also kind to the earth. They don’t contribute harmful pollutants to our waterways and soils, maintain and actually increase the fertility of the soil the plants need for their nutrients, and are mindful about the use of natural resources such as water in their production.
"The aim is not to eradicate all pests and weeds, but to keep them down to an acceptable level and make the most of the benefits that they may provide." 1
But what does this mean to the consumer eating organic produce?
Organic food not only contains less potentially harmful chemicals from pesticides on the outside, but serves up a host of nutrients inside as well. These nutrients are taken from the nutrient dense organic soil in which it is grown in the form of vitamins, minerals and phytonutrients that are vital for our bodies to function at their optimal best. They help give us energy, but also fight to keep up healthy from disease such as cancer.
Oh, an some argue that organic just tastes better and has more flavor than its conventionally grown counterparts.
Food grown using conventional methods
Conventional farming methods employ different tools to add nutrients to the soil. Using formulated fertilizers that are derived from petroleum products they provide the proper amounts of phosphorous, nitrogen and potassium that plants need to survive. They also use pesticides to control weeds and pests. This ensures a healthy abundant crop free from pests with beautiful unblemished fruits and vegetables.
But this productivity can come with an environmental cost. Chemical fertilizers and herbicides can be easily leached from the soil and pollute our waterways.
“The prolonged use of artificial fertilizers results in soils with a low organic matter content that is easily eroded by wind and rain. We have become increasingly dependent on these fertilizers with more amounts needed every year to produce the same yields of crops.” 2In addition, artificial pesticides can remain in the soil for a long periods of time. Eventually they enter the food chain where they can build up in the bodies of animals and humans, causing health problems. Pesticides can also affect the quality of the soil by destroying the microorganisms that live in it. This results in poor soil structure and aeration and decreases the nutrients available to the crops. Pests and diseases can also become more difficult to control as they become resistant to artificial pesticides resulting in the need to use more and/or different chemicals to fight them.
Should you be buying organic?
With all this goodness in organically grown fruits and vegetables and potential dangers from conventional fertilizers and pesticides, it might surprise you when I say there are times when buying locally or conventionally grown foods makes some sense!
In order for produce to be labelled as organic, a farm in the U.S. must be certified by the USDA National Organic Program. The process to become certified is time consuming and costly, especially for small farms. Many small farms may be in the process of certification or find it too expensive and not pursue certification at all. For that reason, many local farmers can not market their harvest as organic even though they may be using some or many of the organic methods mentioned here.
When shopping in the grocery store, chances are good that there will be signs to indicate the origin of produce. Look for those that are from local farms. If you have a chance, ask the produce manager if he is familiar with the farm and their growing methods. It may just be that these foods are a better choice for nutritional value and environmental reasons than an organic variety that was grown many miles away.
Vegetables contain most of their nutrition the fresher they are. Chances are good that an organic variety that was grown in another country has been sitting in transit much longer than produce that may have been picked locally that day. Not only that, but there are costs associated with the shipping that will be passed on to the consumer, and petroleum products will have been used to transport it. All factors to consider when making a purchase.
Local produce is also harvested in season at the peak of nutritional value and flavor.
Chances are good it will taste better than produce grown and shipped from another country (think of peaches in winter. Flavorless.) So stock up when local foods are most abundant. I love to freeze strawberries and blueberries to enjoy in the winter when they are not available locally. You can also roast tomatoes to make a wonderful sauce instead of using canned.
Local produce can be readily available at a local farmers market. Rather than dismissing the non-organic farm stand all together, talk with the vendor, ask if they are using organic methods. Are they selling produce from local farmers or are they being shipped it in from large wholesale marketers? Are they using heirloom varieties? Are they using pesticides, and if so, what are they doing to limit their use? All of these questions will give you a better understanding of where your food is coming from, how it is being grown, and how the farmer is treating the land.
Here is another thing to keep in mind if you buy local or organic. Since organic produce does not use waxes or preservative sprays, it may spoil more quickly. Buy only what you can use, and freeze or cook the rest. If you know you won’t be using something for a few days, conventional may make sense in this case.
And then there is cost to think about. Conventional produces does tend to be more economical. The exception is when an organic food is in season, so keep a look out for sale prices!
If cost is a factor in your decision to buy organic or conventional, there is a handy tool that is put out by the Environmental Working Group to help make buying easier. Every year they compile a list of the "Dirty Dozen Plus" and the "Clean 15."
The Dirty Dozen Plus is a list of the 12+ fruits and vegetables that they have tested with the highest amounts of pesticides and residues. On the flip side, the list of the Clean 15 lists produce with the least amounts. You can use these lists to help you decide which produce to buy organic and which conventionally grown fruits and vegetables are okay if organic isn't available or if you are keeping an eye on your budget. There is even a handy app for your phone to make your buying decisions even easier!
2016 Dirty Dozen Plus and the Clean 15 lists
So what should be your final take on organic vs. conventional produce?
My recommendation is to buy organic when possible, especially for fruits and vegetables that are in season. But don’t ignore conventional produce. The idea is to include more produce in your diet using the best options available to you.
There are times when I find the organic options don’t look good (such as limp greens or broccoli) or aren’t available. I will also try to find other options if organic produce has been shipped over long distances. I will opt for something grown more locally, if possible, even if that means buying a different fruit or vegetable.
And, if I do buy conventional, I am always sure to wash it thoroughly with a little bit of white vinegar in the water to help remove any residue that might be on the surface.
It is best to look for locally grown and ask questions to educate yourself about where your food is coming from. And use the EWG’s Dirty Dozen and Clean 15 to help you make smarter decisions.
Hope you can use this information next time you are grocery shopping! Let me know if you start noticing more signs for produce from local farms at the grocery store near you, or if you are making friends with your local farmer at the weekly farmers market in town!
Yours in Health,
Produce Department by Anthony Albright via Flickr/CC BY
Produce Section by The Inadvertent Gardener via Flicker/CC BY