Is Organic Food Worth It? What You Should Know - Healthy Living Association

Is Organic Food Worth It? What You Should Know

Should you really buy all things organic? When trying to eat healthier, respect the environment and stay away from dangerous chemicals, organic produce, and proteins might seem like a good choice. But is that really so? Today we’ll dive into the truth about organic food, what it is, and whether you should spend more on it.

What does organic mean?

While many companies off-handedly mention using “organic ingredients,” it’s important to distinguish between organic marketing and the actual organic label.

The USDA organic label is the only government-sanctioned way to recognize organic produce. This quality label ensures a series of strict production and labeling requirements are met before putting a product on the market. According to the USDA:

“USDA certified organic foods are grown and processed according to federal guidelines addressing, among many factors, soil quality, animal raising practices, pest and weed control, and use of additives. Organic producers rely on natural substances and physical, mechanical, or biologically based farming methods to the fullest extent possible.” – USDA [1]

There are different labels within this category, depending on the percentage of organic products [2]:

  • 100% organic: These products only contain ingredients certified as organic, including during processing.
  • Organic: These products have at least 95% certified organic ingredients, and the rest of the ingredients should be organically produced.
  • Made with organic: In general, these are multi-ingredient products with at least 70% certified organic ingredients. But the remaining 30% don’t need to be organic.

Only the first two are allowed to place the “certified USDA organic” in the packaging, while the “made with organic” category cannot [2].

Is organic food actually better than regular?

“Better” is a relative term, so it depends on what you’re looking for when buying organic. According to a Stanford University research team, organic and regular produce have nearly the same nutritional value [3]. This means if you’re looking to have more vitamins in your diet, organic items won’t help with that.

On the other hand, if you’re interested in organic foods to avoid pesticides, buy them. According to that Stanford study, only 7% of organic produce had pesticide residue, in contrast with the regular 38%. Since research shows agricultural pesticides can increase your risk of cancer, hormonal issues, and autoimmune diseases [4]. Pesticides have also been linked to a higher prevalence of ADHD in children [5].

In contrast, if you want to buy organic to have better flavor, it might be a better idea to go for seasonal, locally-grown produce regardless of the organic label. Seasonal produce will be fresher and have more intense flavors than other products. On the other hand, when buying from local farmers you’re shortening the time between harvest and table, lowering your carbon footprint as well. Out-of-season produce, even organic ones, will have a bland taste because it was grown fighting against its natural environmental conditions or harvested while green so it can mature while traveling thousands of miles to your supermarket.

The dirty dozen: produce you must buy organic

Even if you’d like to buy everything organic, most household budgets aren’t big enough to afford it. Organic produce can be up to 20% percent more expensive than regular, which can exponentially increase your food budget.

Luckily, it’s not all or nothing. Experts recommend investing only in the most-contaminated organic produce and going for regular with anything else. Plus, a good rule of thumb is the skin or peel: if you’ll eat it, try to buy it organic. Studies show that most pesticides are concentrated on the skin of your vegetables, so to avoid them, either peel your produce or go for organic.

To know which one to buy, the Environmental Working Group publishes a list of produce with the highest pesticide levels [6]. While the list is reviewed every year, the core stays very similar:

  1. strawberries
  2. spinach
  3. kale
  4. nectarines
  5. apples
  6. grapes
  7. peaches
  8. cherries
  9. pears
  10. tomatoes
  11. celery
  12. potatoes

The EWG added hot peppers as an extra 13th item because of its high pesticide levels.

On top of the dirty dozen list, the organization also publishes a clean fifteen list, with 15 products that have low residue levels. You can check the official clean list here.

The verdict

These studies show buying organic will help you avoid pesticides and health issues related to pesticide exposure. However, your nutritional intake will remain the same regardless of the type of produce you invest in. If you’d like to lower the risk without increasing your budget too much, try to buy organic produce from the dirty dozen list and regular items for the rest of your groceries.

References

  1. Organic 101: What the USDA Organic Label Means. US Department of Agriculture. Available here.
  2. Organic 101: “Organic” in the Brand Name…Organic in the Package. US Department of Agriculture. Available here.
  3. Kenneth Chang. September 4th, 2012. Stanford Scientists Cast Doubt on Advantages of Organic Meat and Produce. New York Times. Available here.
  4. Human Health Issues Related to Pesticides. US Environmental Protection Agency. Available here.
  5. Dirty dozen list. EWG. Available here.

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