Q: Should I really try to eat organic foods? How much better are they for you than non-organic foods?
A: The question of eating food that is organic vs. regular is very common. The piece that confuses people the most is that there is no clear-cut answer. This is compounded by the fact that "organic" is now becoming big business, making it harder to determine scientific fact from sales pitch.
Does Organic = More Nutritious?
One of the major draws for people to eat organic food is that they feel like it is more nutritious than conventional foods, but that's not necesarily true. A 2009 research paper published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition found no real difference between the vitamin and mineral content of organic vs. non-organic foods. But, more recently researchers from the University of Sidney found that organic vegetables did in fact have more vitamins and minerals than their conventional counterpart. Another study found that organic strawberries contained more vitamin C than conventional strawberries (a personal observation is that organic strawberries also consistently taste much better than conventional strawberries). Lastly, a 2-year study looking at tomato quality and nutrition found no difference between organic and conventional tomatoes.
From a nutrient standpoint, organic isn't yet the clear-cut winner. Soil fertility and crop nutrient management are areas that are examined as part of the organic certification, but you have to wonder if regulations in this area will become gray with big business moving into the organic space, thus resulting in "certified organic" foods that don’t contain the nutrients you’d expect.
Organic vs. Local
This past summer I had a lengthy lunch with John Marsh, the chef and co-owner of the Green Square Tavern in New York City. We spoke about food, food quality, and preparation. The Green Square Tavern prides itself on bringing food from the "farm to the table," and the food there is amazing.
You might be surprised to know that being labeled "organic" isn't the litmus test for John when he's picking out foods for his restaurant. He instead told me that several of the farmers he deals with run small mom and pop operations, and that paying the fees and jumping through all the hoops required to be certified by the USDA as Organic is prohibitively expensive (from a financial and time standpoint). So while these farmers may not produce "certified organic" food, they are producing food of an extremely high quality. This further validated something that I have been telling clients for years--go local over organic.
A major distinguishing factor between organic and non-organic foods is the use of pesticides, the former being grown without them. A non-profit organization called The Environmental Working Group (EWG) collects data on pesticide testing in foods. They have looked at and compiled data on 51,000 pesticide tests for 52 different fruits and vegetables. Two lists from the EWG are below: The first contains 12 foods with the highest levels of pesticides (the Dirty Dozen), and the second contains the 15 foods that tests revealed had the lowest levels of pesticides (Clean 15).
6. Imported Nectarines
7. Imported Grapes
8. Sweet Bell Peppers
12. Kale & Collard Greens
2. Sweet corn
6. Sweet Peas
13. Sweet Potatoes
Four Key Points to Remember
1. The limiting factor for most people eating organic is cost; organic fruits and vegetables are significantly more expensive. Don’t limit your intake of fruits and vegetables because you can’t afford organic. Start by purchasing organic versions of the Dirty Dozen and don’t concern yourself with purchasing organic versions of the foods found on the Clean 15.
2. The evidence for the universal consumption of organic food by all means necessary is still greatly lacking. Organic foods will have fewer pesticides, but there are conventional vegetables that also have extremely low levels of pesticides. Just because a food is organic doesn’t mean it will contain more nutrients.
3. An organic label on a food doesn't automatically mean it's good for you. You don’t get bonus nutrition points for eating organic cookies over regular cookies. Cookies are cookies.
4. Buy locally grown fruits and vegetables when possible, even if they aren’t certified organic. Locally grown and in-season foods are often your best bet at getting the most nutritious foods.
Dr. Mike Roussell, PhD, is a nutritional consultant known for his ability to transform complex nutritional concepts into practical habits and strategies for his clientele, which includes professional athletes, executives, food companies, and top fitness facilities. Dr. Mike is the author of Dr. Mike's 7 Step Weight Loss Plan and the 6 Pillars of Nutrition.