When should you buy organic?

Do you buy organic foods? If so, why do you buy them? Is it because you perceive they are healthier? Do you think they are safer? Do they taste better? Are they better for you? Organic foods are a huge industry in today’s world. They are usually more expensive than the non-organic version. Is it worth it? There are very strong feelings on both sides of the “organic vs conventional” debate. However, the only one who can answer “is it worth it” for you and your family is you. One caveat is that more research probably needs to be done and the results of any future research could alter the current thought on organic foods.

When speaking of produce, there are two lists with which you might want to be familiar. These lists – The Dirty Dozen and The Clean 15 – are put together by the Environmental Working Group (an organization of scientists, researchers and policymakers) to help consumers know when they should buy organic and when it is unnecessary. These lists were compiled using data from the United States Department of Agriculture on the amount of pesticide residue found on non-organic fruits and vegetables after they had been washed using high-power pressure water systems. (Note, these lists just address the presence/absence of pesticides/chemicals. They do not address taste, nutritional value or other concerns.)

The fruits and vegetables on “The Dirty Dozen” list, when conventionally grown, tested positive for at least 47 different chemicals, with some testing positive for as many as 67. All the produce on “The Clean 15” bore little to no traces of pesticides, and are considered safe to consume in non-organic form.

The top four items that this Working Group recommends buying organic are strawberries, spinach, nectarines & apples. On the cleanest list are avocados, sweet corn, pineapples & asparagus. To see the complete lists, here is a link to 2018 Shopper’s Guide to Pesticides in Produce.

It is interesting to note that organic farming does not mean that there are no pesticides used, only that the pesticides themselves are certified organic. This usually means that they are “natural” rather than “synthetic” but there are some synthetic chemicals that are allowed in organic farming. And, many scientists have concluded that organic pesticides pose the same health risks as non-organic ones.

As of now, no one can say for sure whether organic food is more nutritious than conventional food. Although some studies have shown higher levels of Vitamin C, some minerals & antioxidants, experts say the differences are too small to have an impact on overall nutrition.

When you are considering poultry, meat and dairy products, the main advantage to organic is that the animals are raised without antibiotics. There is some concern that antibiotic use might be leading to an increase in antibiotic-resistant bacteria. Reports also say organic milk contains about 60% more omega-3 fatty acids than non-organic.

What is the cost? A 2015 Consumer Reports study showed, that on average, organic foods are 47% more costly than non-organic. As this is an average, you will see a significant range of cost differences depending on the food and the store. Interestingly, a study in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences found it only costs farmers 5-7% more to use organic methods.

Some industry professionals recommend concentrating more on “Buying Local” with the hopes that those fruit & vegetables are fresher and seasonal. Locally-grown produce does not mean it is necessarily organic although it may be depending on the farm. If you have the space & ability, there is no more local than growing your own produce. In that case, you will have no questions as to how or where it was grown.

As I said in the beginning, only you can decide if you want to go organic and to what extent. Just know there are arguments on both sides but the science, to this point, does not seem to support a strong preference for organic.

Most importantly, eat a diet high in fresh fruits and vegetables. The nutrients that are found in those items are so necessary in your diet and resulting health.