Organic vs Conventional Foods: Which Should You Buy?

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I get this question very frequently from patients, friends, and family: “Should I buy organic food?”. Organic products continue to gain popularity over the last few years. According to the Organic Trade Association (OTA), sales of organic products in the U.S. in 2016 were near $47 billion meaning organic food accounted for 5.3% of grocery sales.

What does it mean for food products to be considered organic? According to the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA), organic produce must be grown in soil that has not contained any prohibited substances in the last 3 years such as synthetic fertilizers and pesticides. For organic meats, animals must be “raised in living conditions accommodating their natural behaviors (like the ability to graze on pasture)”, given organic feed, and not be administered antibiotics or hormones. Any processed or multi-ingredient food products must be free from artificial preservatives, colors, or flavors with the exception of non-agricultural ingredients such as enzymes in yogurt, pectin in fruit jams, or baking soda in baked goods.2

There are several reasons why people believe buying organic is better for your health than other conventional products: more nutritious, less toxins, and better for the environment. However, is it really necessary to go out of your way to buy organic over conventional products? There is still a lot of conflicting research in regards to which is healthier. Based on what we currently know, I will discuss common questions people have about organic foods so that you may have a better understanding on which is the more appropriate choice for you and your lifestyle.

I heard organic produce has more nutrients than conventional. Some studies argue organic produce provide more antioxidants and organic meats/dairy provide additional omega-3 fatty acids. However, other studies also mention the increased amount of antioxidants and omega-3 fatty acids do not provide enough health benefit to make it worth purchasing organic foods for this reason alone.

A systematic review of 55 studies showed conventionally grown produce were higher in nitrogen and organically grown produce were higher in phosphorus. Although studies on organic vs conventional livestock were limited, no significant difference was seen in nutritional quality.1

Overall, more research is needed to determine whether or not organic foods are considered more nutritious than conventional foods and if they even provide the necessary health benefits.

I’ve been told organic products are healthier because they don’t use pesticides compared to conventional food products. While it is true organic farms cannot use pesticides on their produce, the USDA states “there can be inadvertent indirect contact from neighboring conventional farms or shared handling facilities.”3 The USDA’s Pesticide Data Program (PDP) regulate levels of pesticides far below the amount that would cause health risks. This data is compared to the tolerance limit set by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).4 For more information on the use of pesticides and how the EPA has taken steps to monitor and regulate their use on crops, visit their website.

In a very well known systematic review regarding the effects conventional foods may have on humans compared to organic foods, no significant clinical outcomes were found between either groups by food type for allergic reactions. Two other studies in this review showed lower pesticide levels in children’s urine of organic food consumers compared to those who ate conventional foods. However, the risk for clinical outcomes due to elevated pesticide presence in urine and any other bodily fluid from adults (breast milk, semen) was small and did not pose a threat to human health as they were still well below the tolerance limit set by the EPA.5

I heard specific produce are better organic than getting conventional foods for pesticide reasons. For those who are still concerned with pesticide residue on their produce, check out the Environmental Working Group’s  (EWG) dirty dozen list which consists of the top 12 foods which have the highest pesticide presence. It’s important to note these foods on the dirty dozen list are still well below the tolerance limits set by the EPA. However, whether it be organic or conventional produce, it should always be washed before peeling and consuming for food safety reasons. On the opposite side, EWG has a clean fifteen list which consists of 15 foods that have the least amount of pesticide residue. These lists change each year.

Is buying organic foods better for the environment? Pesticide use, whether water- or airborne may have some detrimental effects on the environment such as depleting the ozone, accidentally contaminating drinking water, or having water run-off with high levels reaching non-targeted plants and animals. However, there is no conclusive evidence at this time whether or not organic farming methods are better than conventional farming.

When it comes to buying organic versus conventional products, one of the biggest barriers for some individuals is the cost. Due to the more extensive practices and regulations organic farmers have to follow to grow their products appropriately, organic foods tend to me much more expensive. If you are interested in having organic food products but can’t pay the hefty price tag, try growing your own garden. Not only is it cheaper, but also a rewarding experience. Gardening not your thing? You can generally find cheaper organic products (including meats in some cases) at your local farmer’s market.

Still not sure how you feel about organic versus conventional produce? Your primary goal should be to eat at least 5 servings of fruit and vegetables daily whether that be organic or non-organic. By eating fresh produce, you are likely to gain more health benefits than focusing on reducing pesticide exposure. However, if you currently consume the recommended amount of fruits and vegetables daily and want to take it a step further, there is nothing wrong with going organic. Overall, whether you choose to consume organic or conventional products, is up to you and your lifestyle.

Sources

1 Nutrition Quality of Organic Foods: A Systematic Review. 2008 https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/19640946

2 Organic 101: What the USDA Organic Label Means. https://www.usda.gov/media/blog/2012/03/22/organic-101-what-usda-organic-label-means

3 2010-2011 Pilot Study: Pesticide Residue Testing of Organic Produce. https://www.ams.usda.gov/sites/default/files/media/Pesticide%20Residue%20Testing_Org%20Produce_2010-11PilotStudy.pdf

4 The Pesticide Data Program Fact Sheet. https://www.ams.usda.gov/sites/default/files/media/PDP%20factsheet.pdf

5 Are Organic Foods Safer or Healthier Than Conventional Alternatives?: A Systematic Review. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/22944875