ORGANIC vs. CONVENTIONAL » what's the best choice?
You're at the grocery store and you're standing in front of the plethora of apple varieties to choose from. You notice an area displaying the "organic" varieties and feel torn about which to purchase:
Are there differences in nutritional quality? Can I wash off the pesticides? How harmful are these pesticides, anyway?
Agh, there's such a big price difference, is it worth it?!
It's confusing, no doubt, and I don't know about you but sometimes it feels as if there's a pressure to purchase organic everything, all the time. Mattresses, shampoos and anything else, it seems, can labeled organic. So let's explore whether or not there is a difference and if it's really worth spending that extra $$$.
What's The Difference?
Organic: these foods are grown without the use of synthetic (man-made) fertilizers, pesticides, growth hormones, antibiotics, and depending on which country you live in organic may also mean free of genetically modified organisms (GMOs). It's important to note that organic farming doesn't necessarily mean it's COMPLETELY free of these; there are certain approved pesticides, disinfectants etc. that organic foods are allowed to use. Search for your country's policies around organic practices if you want to learn more.
Conventional: these foods are grown using one or more of the materials mentioned above. Conventional produce typically lasts longer than organic produce.
Let's lay it out...
Did you know: some non-organic farmers may use organic farming practices but face barriers to becoming formally "certified organic" due to the expensive fees, strict examinations and inspections involved.
Are Pesticides Harmful?
To humans: pesticides are designed to kill off pests, so naturally you wonder, "Well... then what's it doing to me?" There have been cases where high levels of exposure have led to adverse health effects in farmers. Some pesticides can affect the nervous system, others are thought to be carcinogens (cancer-causing compounds), and some can lead to skin or eye irritation. Your country's government likely regulates and monitors the type and amount used to ensure the food is safe through toxicology testing, so in most cases it's not a cause for concern. But the health outcomes are understandably still concerning for some of those who consume large amounts of fruits, vegetables, grains and legumes, as vegetarians and vegans often do.
To the planet: there are a few studies here and here that indicate chemical residues from pesticides used in conventional growing practices pose a threat to beneficial soil microorganisms, insects, plants, fish bird and so on. Therefore eating organic foods may have significant environmental benefits.
How Can I decrease the Amount of Pesticide Consumed? The washing method: there are a variety of homemade cleaning solutions that you can find online. Some include some lemon juice, vinegar, salt, or baking soda. These methods are relatively effective in removing some (up to 80%) of the pesticides found on the surface, in addition to dirt, dust and bacteria. Using a scrubber can also help with cleaning the fruit. So next time you're washing conventional fruits and veggies, consider adding a teaspoon or two of salt, baking soda or vinegar to a sink-full of water and give the food a good wash for about 1-2 minutes and then rinse under cold water. It's still a good idea to adequately rinse organic produce too.
The peeling method: you can also peel the fruit to remove a significant amount of the pesticides (more so than washing). But know that you will be removing much of the beneficial fibre as well. In our opinion: keep the peel on and just give it a good wash.
Without getting too nitty gritty about cost analysis, we can state the obvious: organic foods tend to be pricier than conventional foods, and this can be a big barrier for those with good intentions but a restrictive budget. In one 2015 price comparison by Consumer Reports, they found that on average organic foods (including all food groups beyond fruits & veggies) were about 47% more expensive than non-organic foods. However, 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 the shopped, they found that organic lettuce, carrots, maple syrup and olive oils were about the same price as their non-organic counterparts.
If you put in time and effort, you may be able to seek out sales and promotions to buy organic more often. This takes a lot of shopping around and comparing prices, if you're up for it. Ultimately and realistically, you will end up paying more for organic. so it's up to you to budget how much you're willing to pay. If it's not within your means to afford organic, no sweat at all.
Don't feel guilty or pressured to buy organic if it's not your priority or within your means.
We certainly don't purchase all organic, all the time around here... we just do what we can, when we can.
So, Is it Worth it?
One systematic review study conducted by Stanford University researchers concluded that there is no strong evidence that organic foods are significantly more nutritious (that is, contain more nutrients) than conventional foods. They go on to conclude that there is a higher risk of exposure to pesticides and antibiotic resistant bacteria with conventional foods (which makes sense). However, 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" but aren't necessarily healthful. Many of these foods are still high in sugar, oils, and salt. We recommend reading food labels and being diligent as to where you spend your money. Aim for whole foods that have minimal processing as often as you can.
A note on 'natural': organic is not the same as 'natural'. If something is labelled as "all natural" this can mean anything since it's not a regulated term. Just because something says "natural" or "organic" does not necessarily mean it's healthy and can be consumed liberally.
So, yes. Aim for organic whole foods (fruits, veggies, grains, legumes) when possible for health and environmental implications, but there is no need to be afraid or veer away from conventional options either. It's better to be eating these foods in the first place than to avoid them because they aren't organic.
Here's another thing to consider: according to some sources, certain foods are more susceptible to leaching chemicals through their skins, and these tend to be the fruits with thinner skins, like strawberries and nectarines (if compared to fruits with thicker skins like bananas and oranges). You may consider, then, picking and choosing these foods to purchase organic, which brings us to the topic of the Dirty Dozen.
The Dirty Dozen List
Chances are, you've seen or heard about the Dirty Dozen - and maybe even the Clean Fifteen. The Environmental Working Group (EWG) is the primary source for of this list. The idea is that different foods contain different levels of pesticides and chemicals (based on various factors including thickness of skin) and these 12 foods contain the highest levels of pesticides and are therefore ideally purchased organic if possible. And as you can guess, the Clean Fifteen includes the least amount of pesticides and chemicals and can therefore almost always be purchased non-organic.
Despite these foods having higher levels of pesticides, they still fall within safe levels of consumption and are regulated to ensure safety. So there is no pressure to purchase these organic all of the time. The validity of this list hasn't necessarily been confirmed through rigorous studies, so in the end - use this only as a guide within your budget and preferences.
Tip: If it's too big of a jump, start with just one or two food items to consciously purchase organic. Consider availability and cost differences. Some produce (such as potatoes) tend not to cost that much more when comparing organic vs. conventional. Eventually you can add other foods one at a time.
Organic vs. conventional: in the end, the practices vary from country to country and your personal choice of which you choose is up to you. Both offer the same level of nutrient density. Keep your budget in mind when making your decision.
Eat your fruits and veggies: don't let labels deter you from eating these glorious foods. If you only have access to conventional produce, then great! The benefits of a diet rich in fruits and vegetables far outweighs whether or not it's organic.
Wash your 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 your labels: just because something is labelled as organic doesn't mean it's a healthy choice. Check for sugar, fat and sodium content and aim for minimally processed foods in general. Dirty Dozen list: you may consider purchasing some foods organic as they are reported to contain more pesticides than others. Use the Dirty Dozen list as a guide to identify these foods.
Want To Learn More?
Read this previous nutrition article called COCONUT OIL » filtering through the health claims
What About You?
❤ Written by: Mitra (PUL Executive Assistant and Dietetics Student) & Sadia