Cooking Tips · Ingredients

Organic Produce – is it worth the cost?

I first wrote about Organic Foods a few years ago. I decided to update this Cooking Tip with some interesting data, but I am going to limit the discussion to produce. Organic meat and dairy will have to wait for a future Cooking Tip. I would suspect that most people buy organic as they think it is safer to eat. They might also think it is healthier. Since organic foods are more expensive than conventional, it would be good to know if either of these beliefs are true. That is the subject of this Cooking Tip.

Let me start with something we all probably know. That is that there are very strong feelings on both sides of the “organic vs conventional” debate. 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.

There is a US-based environmental advocacy organization called the Environmental Working Group (EWG). Since 1995, they have produced an annual list of what they call The Dirty Dozen and The Clean 15. According to this group, the “Dirty Dozen” of produce has the greatest potential for containing pesticide residue. Therefore, the EWG recommends that consumers only purchase organic forms of these food items. Each year this list is produced and is highly publicized by our media. For the 2022 list, see this link. The “Clean 15” is a list of produce that they say had little to no traces of pesticides, and the EWG considers safe to consume in non-organic form.

On the other side of this discussion is a peer-reviewed study published in the Journal of Toxicology. This study concluded the following:

  • Exposures to the most commonly detected pesticides on the twelve commodities (celery, blueberries, kale, nectarines, peaches, potatoes, spinach, strawberries, cherries, apples, grapes (imported), bell peppers) pose negligible risks to consumers.
  • Substitution of organic forms of the twelve commodities for conventional forms does not result in any appreciable reduction of consumer risks.
  • The methodology used by the environmental advocacy group (EWG) to rank commodities with respect to pesticide risks lacks scientific credibility.

In a 2019 report (attach report) by the Pesticide Data Program (part of the USDA), they state “nearly 99 percent of the samples tested had residues below the tolerances established by the EPA with 42.5 percent having no detectable residue.” Of course, for this to have meaning to you, you must put trust in these levels established by the government.

Another interesting point is 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, there is no evidence that organic produce is more nutritious than conventional produce. In fact, most of the studies done on the health benefits of produce have been done on the conventional varieties. A study published in the Annals of Internal Medicine in 2011 concluded “The published literature lacks strong evidence that organic foods are significantly more nutritious than conventional foods.” There are some studies that have shown higher levels of Vitamin C, some minerals & antioxidants in organic produce although the experts say the differences are too small to have an impact on overall nutrition.

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. In recent years, the price differences have become less as more traditional grocery stores start to offer their own organic versions.

This price difference is a concern for low-income shoppers. They have heard the same media reports about organic vs conventional produce but the expense does not allow them to purchase the organic versions. What is disappointing is that a 2016 study published in Nutrition Today found that rather than purchasing the conventional produce, they often chose to not purchase any produce at all, something that is not a positive for their diet and health.

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 produce yourself. 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.