What's the difference
Organic: these foods are grown without the use of human-made fertilizers, pesticides, growth hormones, and antibiotics. Depending on which country we live in, organic may also mean free of genetically modified organisms. It's important to note that organic farming doesn't necessarily mean it's completely free of these. Many of us may think that organic means grown without pesticides which isn't necessarily the case. There are certain substances that are approved for use on organic crops which may include more natural pesticides. Searching for a country's policies around organic practices is a great place to start to learn more.
Conventional: these foods are grown using one or more practices mentioned above, such as human-made fertilizers, pesticides, growth hormones, and antibiotics. Conventional produce typically lasts longer than organic produce.
Pesticides are considered to be a substance used to destroy, repel or control pests, such as bugs or weeds. Let's explore the impact of pesticide use on humans and our planet.
For humans, there have been cases where high levels of exposure have led to adverse health effects in farmers. Some pesticides can affect the nervous system, irritate the skin or eyes, or be cancer-causing. Each country's government likely regulates and monitors the type and amount used to ensure the food is safe through toxicology testing. In most cases, it's not a cause for concern. The health outcomes are understandably still concerning for those of us who consume large amounts of fruits, vegetables, grains and legumes.
For our planet, a few studies have indicated that chemical residues from pesticide use in conventional growing practices pose a threat to beneficial soil microorganisms, insects, plants, fish, and others. Eating organic foods may have significant environmental benefits.
Ways to decrease pesticide consumption
There are a couple of ways in which we can decrease the amount of pesticides we consume from conventionally-grown produce.
The first is the washing method. Cleaning the surface of our produce with cold water has been found to be relatively effective in removing up to 80% of the pesticides found on the surface. Using a scrubber can also help with cleaning. We can also add a teaspoon or two of salt, baking soda or vinegar to a sink full of water and give our fruits and veggies a good wash for about 1-2 minutes. Then after washing, rinse with cold water. Although this tip is mainly for conventional produce, it'd still be a good idea to adequately rinse organic produce to remove any dirt or bacteria.
The second is the peeling method. We can also peel our fruit to remove a significant amount of pesticides. In fact, it's been found that peeling is more effective than washing in removing pesticides on produce items. When we remove peels of fruits or vegetables, we're also removing much of the beneficial fibre though, which often helps with regulating digestion and keeping us feeling full. For this reason, here at PUL we often recommend keeping the peels on and simply washing our produce thoroughly.
Organic foods tend to be pricier than conventional foods. This can be a big barrier for those of us with good intentions but a restrictive budget. In one 2015 price comparison by Consumer Reports, they found that on average, organic foods were about 47% more expensive than non-organic foods. There was a large range and many products they encountered were in fact the same price or even cheaper in some cases. For example, where they shopped, they found that organic lettuce, carrots, maple syrup and olive oils were about the same price as their non-organic counterparts.
If we put in time and effort, we may be able to seek out sales and promotions to buy organic more often, at a lower price point. This may take a lot of shopping around and comparing prices though. Ultimately and realistically, we generally end up paying more for organic. It's up to our budgets to determine how much we're willing to pay. If it's not within our means to afford organic, no sweat at all. It's okay to go conventional.
Remember that there's no need to feel guilty or pressured to buy organic, especially if it's not a priority or within our means. Here at PUL, we certainly don't purchase all organic, all the time, We just do what we can, when we can.
The final verdict
Is buying organic worth it?
One systematic review study conducted by Stanford University researchers concluded that there's no strong evidence that organic foods are significantly more nutritious than conventional foods. They do conclude that there may be a higher risk of exposure to pesticides and antibiotic-resistant bacteria with conventional foods. As mentioned above, there are potential health risks involved with pesticide usage, if not to the consumer, to the farmers directly involved and to the environment.
It's also worth mentioning that there are plenty of processed foods out there such as chocolate bars, frozen desserts, chips, and sugar-sweetened beverages that are "certified 100% organic". Despite the organic certification, many of these foods may be high in excess sugar, oils, and salt. We recommend reading food labels and being mindful of where our money goes. At the end of the day, food is here to nourish us - whether it be for the cells or the soul. We can aim to make more wholesome choices by picking less processed foods more often.
It's totally okay to aim for organic fruits, veggies, grains, legumes when possible for health and environmental implications. At the same time, there's no need to be afraid or veer away from conventional options either. It's better to be eating these nourishing foods in the first place than to avoid them because they aren't organic.
Another thing to consider is that according to some sources, certain foods are more susceptible to leaching chemicals through their skins. These tend to be the fruits with thinner skins, like strawberries and nectarines. You may consider, then, picking and choosing certain foods to purchase organic. which brings us to the topic of the dirty dozen.
The dirty dozen list
Some of us may have heard about the dirty dozen, and maybe even the clean fifteen. The Environmental Working Group (EWG) is the primary source for this list. The idea is that different foods contain different levels of pesticides and chemicals, based on various factors including the thickness of the skin. The 12 foods listed on the Dirty Dozen list are claimed to contain the highest levels of pesticides. These would then ideally be purchased organic if possible. On the other hand, the Clean Fifteen includes a list of 15 foods that are thought to contain the least amount of pesticides and chemicals, and can therefore almost always be purchased non-organic. It's important to note that the methods used to make these lists come with flaws and have been criticized.
Despite the foods on the dirty dozen list being claimed to have higher levels of pesticides, they still fall within safe levels of consumption and are regulated to ensure our safety. Some research even states that substituting for the organic forms of items on the dirty dozen list won't lead to any health benefit. Overall, the risks of consuming small amounts of pesticide residue are much smaller than the risks to our health of avoiding these fruits or veggies.
With that said, there's no pressure to purchase organic foods all of the time. The validity of this list hasn't been confirmed, so in the end, we can choose to use it as a guide if we understand its limitations and the recommendations fall within our budget and preferences.
- Choosing organic or conventional is ultimately a personal choice. Both organic and conventional offer the same level of nutrient density. Our budget and environmental outlook may be things to keep in mind when making a decision.
- It's important to consume fruits and vegetables in abundance, regardless of whether it's organic or conventional. If we only have access to conventional produce but are looking for organic produce, it's better to have these conventional foods than to not have them at all.
- Wash produce well. Consider washing and scrubbing in cold water with baking soda, salt or vinegar solutions for 1-2 minutes to get some of the surface chemicals off.
- Read labels. Just because something is labelled as organic doesn't mean it's the most nutritious choice. We can check food labels to be more mindful of the sugar, fat, and sodium content in foods.
- There aren't necessarily "dirty" or "clean" fruits or veggies. The Dirty Dozen list isn't a perfect representation of pesticide amounts in conventional produce.