In 2020, 94.38 million Americans used organic foods. Despite millions of people buying organic foods, there’s still a lot of confusion about whether organic foods are healthier. Like most things, the answer isn’t as straightforward as you might think. With the added expense of organic produce, the non-organic vs. organic debate continues.
While organic foods appear to have similar nutritional value as their non-organic counterparts, they won’t contain synthetic pesticides and herbicides. It can, however, contain naturally-derived pesticides. As a health and environmentally-conscious society, it’s important to question how pesticides affect you and the planet. Let’s dive into what the science says about organic food and some top tips for buying produce.
What does organic actually mean?
USDA-certified organic foods use specific growing, farming, and production methods according to federal guidelines. Factors like soil quality, animal living conditions, pest and weed control, and the use of additives, antibiotics, and hormones all have to meet specific regulations.
When it comes to using pesticides, organic produce can’t use prohibited pesticides like synthetic fertilizers. So, what are pesticides? Essentially, a pesticide is a substance that farmers use to control pests and destroy unwanted vegetation like weeds. Organic produce isn’t pesticide-free, but it has to use naturally-derived pesticides or physical barriers to control pests.
Evidence suggests that pesticide exposure may be linked to a higher risk of developing Parkinson’s disease and even alter specific genes. But, the underlying mechanism of how pesticides impact human health needs further research. In addition, pesticide residue can cause problems in non-target species and damage ecosystems.
Are organic foods healthier than conventional produce?
To this day, the argument of whether organic foods are healthier than conventional farming practices continues. While there is a lot of conflicting information available, there’s a growing body of research showing the adverse effects of pesticide exposure among the population. One study found that people with high levels of pesticide exposure were more likely to die from cardiovascular disease. As there remain a lot of unanswered questions about the true impact of long-term pesticide exposure on health, the research needs to continue.
The organic market is a growing industry. Studies show that the biggest reasons that consumers buy organic foods are:
- Health consciousness
- Food safety
- Environmentally aware
- Consumer’s knowledge on organic foods
Studies show that organic food tends to have higher antioxidants and lower cadmium concentrations. But overall, the notion that organic food is more nutritious isn’t currently supported. The main difference appears to be in antioxidants and fatty acids; however, the quantities are not large enough to significantly impact human health.
One benefit of organic produce is that it tends to have lower levels of pesticides. Choosing organic foods may help to reduce your exposure to heavy metals and pesticides. Research shows that eating organic food may reduce the risk of allergic disease, overweight, and obesity. But as people who eat organic food tend to eat healthier foods and lead active lifestyles, more research is still needed.
The environment also plays a role in the decision to buy organic foods. Organic farming focuses on sustainability over time, maintaining biodiversity, not using GMOs, and thinking about the impact of agriculture on the environment.
What’s confusing about organic produce is that the organic health halo doesn’t necessarily mean that everything organic is healthy. Are organic cookies, desserts, and cakes healthy? No, they are still high in sugar and calories despite the supposed healthy organic label. Often, shoppers perceive organic food as healthier. Buying organic junk food is still unhealthy, despite the label.
What foods to buy organic?
It’s no secret that organic foods tend to be more expensive than conventional produce. This makes it unaffordable for many people to eat fully organic.
A Consumers Reports analysis of five years from the Department of Agriculture collected data on fruits and vegetables. They found that almost half of non-organic produce poses little risk. But about 20% of fresh produce like potatoes and fresh green beans had the worst scores. So, if you can’t afford to buy everything organic, the first step is to buy organic versions of foods that tend to have higher levels of pesticides.
Another great tip is to always wash your fruit and vegetables before eating. The next step is to head to your local farmer’s market.
Buying local foods helps to reduce the miles traveled, support local farmers, and eat fresher foods. To help you find local and seasonal foods in your area, here are some great resources:
- USDA SNAP-ed Connection Seasonal Produce Guide
- Seasonal Food Guide to find food by state, month, and product type
The bottom line is that the organic label is highly regulated and lets you understand how food is farmed and produced, but it doesn’t mean that it’s perfect. Eating organic isn’t the only way to be healthy. If you can’t eat organic produce all the time, the solution isn’t to cut down on your fruit, veg, and fresh produce. Instead, be selective about what you do buy organic to minimize your risk of pesticide exposure. Try to buy local and seasonal foods over conventionally farmed products, where you can.
The content provided in this article is provided for information purposes only and is not a substitute for professional advice and consultation, including professional medical advice and consultation; it is provided with the understanding that PRVNT LLC (“PRVNT-LA”) is not engaged in the provision or rendering of medical advice or services. The opinions and content included in the article are the views of the writer only, and PRVNT-LA does not endorse or recommend any such content or information, or any product or service mentioned in the article. You understand and agree that PRVNT-LA shall not be liable for any claim, loss, or damage arising out of the use of, or reliance upon any content or information in the article.