Buying and Eating Organic

The topic isn’t as cut and dry as some make it seem

Woman holding a bag of apples
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I have long thought of nutritious and organic as a Venn diagram. A food can be highly nutritious, but not organic. A food can be organic, but not at all nutritious. And, of course, foods can be both; that overlap tends to make for easy choices.

But often, we have harder choices to make. Which is more important: nutritious or organic? Does produce need to be organic to be good for us? What do we know about the health benefits of organic and/or the environmental benefits?

Here’s how my expert colleagues at the True Health Initiative sort it all out to help you do the same.

Weighing Your Options

Christopher Gardner, PhD
Professor of Medicine, Stanford University

Buying organic increases the demand for agricultural products grown organically, and this is almost always better for the planet. If it is better for the planet, the planet should have greater capacity to produce healthy sustenance for us all. That is a true benefit worth considering.

Other perceived pluses of eating organic, however, are not as clear. Are you choosing organic to get more nutrients in your foods? In general, the nutrient profile of the same foods is similar regardless of whether they’re grown organically or conventionally. 

Are you concerned about exposure to pesticides? Yes, organic production involves lower pesticide use, but our current evidence for the health benefits of this difference is limited—and we’re unsure of how low is low enough.

What about a family that struggles to put food on the table? Getting conventional produce for them is more important, and almost surely more affordable, than choosing organic.

As you can see, making a choice to eat organic involves many considerations. As you weigh them, it’s worth noting that many small farmers who follow organic practices don't have the resources to become organic certified; their produce at the farmers' market may be of similar quality to that of other farms that are certified and growing the same items.

Finally, there is the absurdity of someone on an “organic quest”—going first to the produce section of the market, finding nothing labeled organic, and then going to the cookie aisle and selecting something with organic cane sugar and organic white flour in the ingredient list (instead of conventional produce).

It can be worthwhile to buy organic. But before using “organic” as a purchasing strategy, consider your overall health goals.

Putting Pesticides in Perspective

Joel Kahn, MD, FACC
Clinical Professor of Medicine (Cardiology), Wayne State University School of Medicine

If life were ideal, we would consume food contaminated with as little pesticide as possible. Pesticides have been classified as probable carcinogens for 25 years and have been associated with different kinds of cancers in certain workers, although they are exposed to much higher levels than found on our food.

The fact that organic fruits and vegetables have lower residues of pesticides is well known. For example, researchers in Australia studied 13 volunteers who ate a conventional diet for one week and more than 80 percent organic foods for another week. Urinary levels of pesticides fell by 89 percent to 96 percent on the organic diet.

In a different analysis of a family of five in Sweden, urine levels of pesticides fell by over 90 percent when the family's diet shifted from conventional to organic, and the decrease was greatest in the children.

It is reasonable to avoid pesticides and purchase organic food items whenever feasible. That said, knowing that fruits and vegetables should constitute at least half of our diets, should we skip them if the only choice is conventional produce?

In an analysis of the pros and cons of buying fruits and vegetables, it was calculated that if half of the American population ate one more serving of conventional produce a day there might be 10 additional cases of cancer from the extra pesticide exposure.

On the flip side was an estimated 19,990 cases of cancer that might be prevented by the healthy nutrients in these foods. 

It appears that we get so many important health benefits from eating fruits and vegetables that if the cost and availability of organic options are prohibitive, any peas, carrots, apples, and plums are better than none.

The Truth Behind Myths

Kathleen Zelman, MPH, RD
Nutrition Expert

There are a few misconceptions worth clearing up. Again, organic foods are not more nutritious than those grown conventionally. A review of 55 studies found no difference in nutrient quality of fruits, vegetables, grains, pork, chicken, eggs, or milk.

And to some people’s surprise, both organic and conventional farmers may use pesticides; there are approved synthetic pesticides that organic farmers are allowed to use in addition to the natural ones. While it’s true that consuming organic foods may reduce exposure to pesticide residues overall, multiple studies have shown that such residues on conventional produce are well within maximum allowable limits.

The dose makes the poison. The mere presence of pesticide residues on food does not mean they are harmful. Conventionally and organically grown produce is safe to eat.

In my opinion, even if you can afford the added expense, choosing organic foods over conventionally grown is a personal choice. With an estimated 94 percent of Americans falling short of meeting recommendations to eat five or more fruits and vegetables daily, it is far more important to eat more of these super nutritious foods than to worry about how they are produced. 

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