Is Buying Organic Worth the Cost?
In 2015 alone, Americans spent over $39 billion on organic products, an 11% increase from the year before. Studies show that many people buy organic food because they think it’s healthier and more nutritious than conventional alternatives. Always cognizant of the latest health fads, food manufacturers know that labeling a product “organic” is likely to boost sales, which explains the myriad of organic products in grocery stores today. But what does “organic” actually mean, and do the health benefits outweigh the steep cost?
The United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) certifies food organic if it meets a number of established criteria: The product must be at least 95% organic, free of synthetic pesticides, herbicides, and genetically modified ingredients, and produced using sustainable farming methods. This means that farmers must use more natural methods to keep pests and weeds away from crops, like netting and crop rotation.
In terms of the health benefits of organic fruits and vegetables, the research is mixed. A 2012 review of over 200 studies concluded that organic produce does not contain any more vitamins and minerals than conventional produce, although it does show fewer traces of pesticide residue. Other studies have found that compared to conventional produce, organic fruits and vegetables contain higher levels of Vitamin C, Iron, Magnesium, and Phosphorus. Nevertheless, the general consensus among researchers is that organic produce does not have a significant nutritional advantage.
Despite these findings, most researchers agree that eating organic produce can reduce your exposure to harmful toxins and pesticides, which are sprayed on crops to prevent mold and insect infestation. The FDA has approved over 600 chemicals for use in farming, which means that each person is exposed to about 16 pounds of pesticides every year. The National Academy of Sciences found that over 90% of these chemicals have not been tested for their long-term health effects. Pesticides are not only toxic to pests; they can cause skin and lung irritation, neurological problems, hormone disruption, reproductive effects, and even cancer. However, it is important to note that pesticide residue that remains on fruits and vegetables is typically well below the limits set by the Environmental Protection Agency.
Some people choose to buy organic because of the environmental benefits. Organic farming practices reduce pollution, conserve water and soil, and promote greater levels of biodiversity, which is important to maintain a healthy ecosystem. Avoiding toxic pesticides and herbicides prevents chemical runoff into nearby lakes and streams, thereby protecting wildlife. A lesser known benefit of organic farming is that ensures the health of field workers by eliminating their daily exposure to extremely toxic chemicals.
While the health and environmental benefits are certainly significant, many people are reluctant to purchase organic produce because of the higher cost. According to the Organic Farming Research Foundation (OFRF), organic food is more expensive because “the organic price tag more closely reflects the true cost of growing the food. The intensive management and labor used in organic production are frequently (though not always) more expensive than the chemicals routinely used on conventional farms.”
If you want to reduce your exposure to pesticides but can’t afford to buy organic, health experts recommend buying locally-grown, in-season produce, because it is fresher and cheaper than fruits and vegetables that have been imported from other countries (In case you’re wondering, apples, oranges, sweet potatoes, and kiwis are all in season now, so stock up!). Eating a variety of fruits and vegetables is a great way to reduce your exposure to a single pesticide. Research also shows that washing fruits and vegetables thoroughly under running water can remove some bacteria and chemicals.
Another way to reduce your exposure to pesticides without shelling out your life-savings is to avoid the “Dirty Dozen.” Every year, the Environmental Working Group (EWG), a nonprofit environmental research group based in Washington D.C., tests hundreds of samples and releases a list of the 12 items with the highest pesticide levels and the 15 items with the lowest. In 2015, the dirty dozen included apples, peaches, strawberries, grapes, nectarines, potatoes, bell peppers, celery, spinach, cherry tomatoes, cucumbers, and sugar snap peas. Shockingly, a single sample of grapes contained over 15 pesticides!
The “Clean 15” from 2015 are: mango, grapefruit, pineapple, kiwi, cantaloupe, avocado, papaya, sweet potato, cabbage, onion, asparagus, eggplant, cauliflower, sweet corn, and frozen sweet peas. Avocados were the cleanest of all, with only 1% of samples containing pesticide residue. Good news for all you avocado lovers out there!
In general, fruits and vegetables that have a thick outer skin, like watermelon and corn, are naturally protected from chemicals even if they are conventionally grown. So don’t fall for the organic food trap by spending loads of cash on every organic product you see. Know which fruits and vegetables naturally contain fewer pesticides, and which ones are better to buy organic. Your body (and your wallet) will thank you.