Once upon a time, organic foods were sold only in specialty health food stores and eaten only by hippies and health fanatics. Now, organic foods are not only popping up all over, they are the seemingly “trendy” thing to buy! But as with most trends, eating organic isn’t cheap. So is this trend one which is worth jumping on the bandwagon, or should you save your cash? Read on to find out.
The first step in deciding whether or not organic is worth it is to understand what organic means. According to the USDA, foods bearing the organic seal must be grown, harvested, and processed using a defined set of standards which include restrictions on amounts and residues of pesticides, antibiotics, and hormones and also use methods which preserve the environment. In order for a food to contain the organic seal, it must contain 95% or more organic materials. Foods made with 70-94% organic ingredients can be labeled as “Made with Organic Ingredients”, but cannot contain the USDA seal. Based on these guidelines, it's also important to mention that the terms "natural", “free-range” and "hormone-free" are not interchangeable for “organic”. These terms are not regulated by law. It is also important to note than organic labeling from the USDA is voluntary, so smaller operations like local markets may not contain the seal, but that does not necessarily mean that their products are not organic.
So is organic food better for my health? The USDA makes no claims that organic foods are healthier or more nutritious than conventional foods. According to a study from Stanford University, produce, meat, and dairy products showed no nutritional differences between organic and non-organic foods. This study also demonstrated that there was not a significant difference in terms of food safety between organic produce and conventional produce grown with the use of pesticides. The researchers found that the pesticide levels of all foods generally fell within the allowable safety limits.
As a dietitian, I often use the term “nutrition halo”. Here’s what I mean by that: Often when consumers see a food labeled “organic” or “natural” they automatically assume that the product must be healthy. Not true. Organic junk food is still junk food. If you are trying to avoid ingredients you cannot pronounce, organic processed foods might be for you. It's better to buy a wholesome, healthy snack food that has a better nutritional profile (ex. higher in fiber and protein but low in sugar) and is not organic than an organic snack food that is high in sugar and low in fiber. An example of a healthy snack that is not organic would be KIND Nuts and Spices bars. KIND is made from high quality, whole nuts and flavored with spices, making them naturally lower in sugar. Flatout flatbreads are another great example of a food which is not organic but is still a healthy, high fiber, whole grain choice.
Then what foods are worth the added cost of organic? A group called the Environmental Working Group puts together a list each year of the “dirty dozen” produce. This list includes produce with the highest levels of pesticide residue. These are foods that, if you are considering buying organic, would be your best bet to purchase organic to limit exposure. This year, the list includes the following:
· Sweet bell peppers
· Cherry tomatoes
· Imported snap peas
The Environmental Working Group also puts together a yearly list of produce which has the least amount of pesticide residues. This year, that list includes the following:
· Sweet corn
· Frozen sweet peas
· Sweet potatoes
As a general rule of thumb, thin, edible skinned foods are more likely to be exposed to pesticides vs thick skinned foods. This is because you are typically eating the skins of thin skinned foods and throwing away thick skins, like avocado or pineapple. Therefore, you are exposed to more pesticides if you are eating the skin.
Bottom line: While organic foods may reduce exposure to pesticides and hormones, it does not appear that organic foods are considerably more nutritious than conventional foods. If you are considering eating organic but don’t want the added cost, consider focusing on purchasing only the “Dirty Dozen” in organic. If you cannot afford to purchase any organic foods, you should not avoid fruits and vegetables altogether. Experts agree that the health benefits from eating fruits and vegetables far outweigh the potential risks of pesticide exposure.