Organic Food: Is it Really Better for You?

Article posted in: Diet & Nutrition

You’re perusing the produce aisle of your grocery store, grabbing carrots to cut up for your lunches. The bunches are all orange and pretty much the same size, but the organic carrots are an extra $1—but what’s a buck? The veggies are healthier, right?

That’s the $35 billion question: That’s how much the organics industry took in in 2014, according to estimates by the USDA. From 2010 to 2015, sales of organic produce doubled at Whole Foods Markets. Of those sales, a little less than half was produce—about 43 percent, according to 2012 stats—with another 15 percent in dairy sales. Most of that veggie buying comes from the belief that the lack of pesticides used in organic farming leads to healthier food.

And it kind of does: In a 2014 research review of 343 different studies, UK scientists found that the antioxidant content in organic foods was between 19 and 69 percent higher than in conventionally grown crops. Antioxidants reduce inflammation in the body and ward off cancer, among other benefits. The review also found that the incidence of pesticide residue was four times more common in conventional crops, which contained statistically higher levels of cadmium when contaminated. High levels of cadmium consumption have been associated with gastrointestinal problems like diarrhea and kidney disease, according to the CDC, but high levels are usually associated with exposure to burning fossil fuels, cigarette smoking and welding cadmium-coated steel.

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A similar research review from 2012 also found that pesticide levels were higher in conventional crops—in both studies, the residue levels were within allowable levels, and organic produce was not immune to pesticide residue. The 2012 review, conducted at Stanford, did not find the differences in antioxidant content, but did find that organic food was statistically higher in phosphorous—but because most American diets already contained enough phosphorous, this was not considered a real advantage for organic produce. In both reviews, the contents of major vitamins and nutrients—stuff like Vitamin A and D, potassium and others—was not statistically different between organic and conventional food.

So the answer is that organic produce is, in some ways, healthier. Except when it isn’t, and in ways you can’t tell right now: While the average nutrient amounts of fruits and vegetables is known, they can vary wildly from fruit to fruit depending on the environment they’re grown in, the size of the individual fruit or veggie, the ripeness of the piece when it’s picked, and a variety of other factors. But if you’re worried about the cancer risks associated with pesticides—even those below “acceptable” levels—organic can make a difference.

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If you don’t have the budget to make every buying decision organic, don’t worry: The Environmental Working Group, a nonprofit organization, releases an annual list called the “Dirty Dozen,” a list of fruits and veggies that may affect consumers the most when contaminated with pesticide residue. Here’s the list:

  • Strawberries
  • Apples
  • Nectarines
  • Peaches
  • Celery
  • Grapes
  • Cherries
  • Spinach
  • Tomatoes
  • Bell Peppers
  • Cherry Tomatoes
  • Cucumbers