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Q. Organic—or Not? Is Organic Produce Healthier Than Conventional?

By Marissa Lippert, M.S., R.D., EatingWell In Season: The Farmers' Market Cookbook (2009)

Organic—or Not? Is organic produce healthier than conventional?

A. There are at least two good arguments for eating organic: fewer pesticides and more nutrients. Let’s start with pesticides. Pesticides can be absorbed into fruits and vegetables, and leave trace residues. The Environmental Working Group (EWG), a nonprofit, nonpartisan organization, pored over the results of nearly 51,000 USDA and FDA tests for pesticides on 44 popular produce items and identified the types of fruits and vegetables that were most likely to have higher trace amounts. Most people have no problems eating conventionally grown produce but if you feel strongly about pesticide residues, the EWG’s list below should help you shop.

As for nutrients, in 2007 a study out of Newcastle University in the United Kingdom reported that organic produce boasted up to 40 percent higher levels of some nutrients (including vitamin C, zinc and iron) than its conventional counterparts. Additionally, a 2003 study in the Journal of Agricultural and Food Chemistry found that organically grown berries and corn contained 58 percent more polyphenols—antioxidants that help prevent cardiovascular disease—and up to 52 percent higher levels of vitamin C than those conventionally grown. Recent research by that study’s lead author, Alyson Mitchell, Ph.D., an associate professor of food science and technology at the University of California, Davis, pinpoints a potential mechanism to explain why organic techniques may sometimes yield superior produce.

It’s a difference in soil fertility, says Mitchell: “With organic methods, the nitrogen present in composted soil is released slowly and therefore plants grow at a normal rate, with their nutrients in balance. Vegetables fertilized with conventional fertilizers grow very rapidly and allocate less energy to develop nutrients.” Buying conventional produce from local farmers also has benefits. Nutrient values in produce peak at prime ripeness, just after harvest. As a general rule, the less produce has to travel, the fresher and more nutrient-rich it remains.

A 2008 review by the Organic Center of almost 100 studies on the nutritional quality of organic produce compared the effects conventional and organic farming methods have on specific nutrients. The report’s conclusion: “Yes, organic plant-based foods are, on average, more nutritious.”

Bottom line: “Eating more fresh fruits and vegetables in general is the point,” says Mitchell. If buying all organic isn’t a priority—or a financial reality for you—you might opt to buy organic specifically when you’re selecting foods that are most heavily contaminated with pesticide and insecticide residues. See next page for a handy chart for common fruits and vegetables.

 

Preferably Organic
—Most Commonly Contaminated*

If Budget Allows, Buy Organic

It’s Your Call
—Least Commonly Contaminated

  • Apples
  • Celery
  • Strawberries
  • Peaches
  • Spinach
  • Nectarines
  • Grapes
  • Sweet Bell Peppers
  • Potatoes
  • Blueberries
  • Lettuce
  • Kale/Collard Greens
  • Green Beans
  • Summer Squash
  • Peppers
  • Cucumbers
  • Raspberries
  • Grapes - Domestic
  • Plums
  • Oranges
  • Cauliflower
  • Tangerines
  • Bananas
  • Winter Squash
  • Cranberries
  • Onions
  • Sweet Corn
  • Pineapples
  • Avocado
  • Asparagus
  • Sweet Peas
  • Mangoes
  • Eggplant
  • Cantaloupe
  • Kiwi
  • Cabbage
  • Watermelon
  • Sweet Potato
  • Grapefruit
  • Mushrooms

*Listed in order of pesticide load
Source: Environmental Working Group. Go to foodnews.org for updates. Updated June 2011.

COMMENTS POSTEDsort icon

I have been buying Organic for several years, before all the hype. There was less accessibility to most of these products. Marketing organics via Magazines, TV, the Web... all of this has helped bring more attention to Organics and I feel awareness is key here. I feel for the farmers who know it's the route they should take and we should too. The environment is truly falling apart because of all the pesticides in our soil, water & air. I truly feel eating as well as my family has, has helped us greatly and will continue to help us (my husband & two boys who are 8 & 9 & myself). Both my father-in-law & mother-in-law died of Cancer. I won't allow that. I know the environment had a lot to do with it. I don't want to chance my family going through that themselves. I am passionate about what I put into my mouth. I have shown & educated my children the importance of choosing wisely. I know one day I won't be able to control it....but I will be able to educate others as much as I can. Maybe that is my key purpose in life. Eating Well & Educating others. Namaste...Peace & Harmony Always, Corie

Anonymous

12/17/2009 - 10:52pm

I usually only buy the organic when the prices are close in comparison, however, after learning what I just learned I will certainly try to buy organic as much as possible from now on.

That's why I grow as much as I can in my own garden, I love my "own" veggies.... I know what's in them and what's not. My now adult kids have grown to appreciate the freshness in homegrown and often compare them when tasting other "fresh, from the grocery store", frozen or God forbid, canned veggies.

Should we assume that when the local farmers have their set ups and we buy from them we are purchasing organic? I don't remember seeing signs stating it, and yes, I'm sure I can just ask, but often in my neck of the woods there's just a box to put the money in after you've self served your purchase. I'm glad to know now why it is I should buy more organic. It makes sense.

Anonymous

12/27/2009 - 5:53pm

You are what you eat and I truly believe that. I buy what I can afford organic and very seldom do I purchase canned food. Processed food is a waste of my money, therefore I cook from scratch - lots of grains, beans and the few things I grow in my garden. Summer in the Rocky Mountains is a short growing season. My children know the value of eating well and are sharing with their children the value of good food. Family meals are such joy! Home cooking is "Comida Sabrosa". Enjoy life!

Anonymous

12/27/2009 - 7:08pm

Thanks for sharing this post. This is a very helpful and informative material. Good post and keep it up. Websites are always helpful in one way or the other, that’s cool stuff, anyways, It’s a difference in soil fertility, says Mitchell: “With organic methods, the nitrogen present in composted soil is released slowly and therefore plants grow at a normal rate, with their nutrients in balance. Vegetables fertilized with conventional fertilizers grow very rapidly and allocate less energy to develop nutrients.” Buying conventional produce from local farmers also has benefits. Nutrient values in produce peak at prime ripeness, just after harvest. As a general rule, the less produce has to travel, the fresher and more nutrient-rich it remains.
Thanks
Micheal,

michealsmith898

01/06/2010 - 6:53am

I'd rather buy food that I know is healthier for my family and buy organic and local when I can. I am going to big chain stores less and less if they do not offer a variety of organic and local produce. I am horrified about genetically modified food. Do you have a list of vegetables and fruits that are more likely to be genetically modified? Does a package of conventional frozen corn for instance have to be labeled so consumers are informed of what they are purchasing? Consumers have a right to know. I am grateful for local produce and the every growing organic movement. thanks

Anonymous

01/31/2010 - 8:05am

Thanks for publicly sharing your knowledge. I have a question what is “white meat chicken” I see this on a lot of frozen products, looking forward to your answer

Anonymous

03/18/2010 - 9:50pm

My concern for organics is not just the pesticide issue, but also the problem with genetically modified foods. I have heard that tomatoes are one of the worst genetically modified foods. I would love to see a list where that is the main concern.

Anonymous

03/18/2010 - 10:01pm

I buy as much organic as I can. I also cook everything from scratch- I do not buy anything microwavable, and use mostly whole grains and fresh vegetables. We grow a vegetable garden in the summer, and I can tomatoes and green beans to eat all winter. I also buy apples by the bushel, and can homemade applesauce. Our local store carries a lot of organic products including produce and meats. I make a trip to an Earth Fare Store that is 60 miles from my home at least 2 times a month and stock up on products like coffee, flour, etc.

Anonymous

03/18/2010 - 11:07pm

No the proposed law that would make it mandatory to state GMOs was turned down (thank all the big business ruining our food and not wanting us to know!) Organic is non GMO, other products will state non GMO and heirloom is non GMO. Other than that its all pretty much GMO in almost everything you eat.

Buy local and organic as much as you can, grow your own if you can! Ask questions and request what you want! The more we buy the more it will become the norm and the prices will reduce over time, you vote every time you take a bite so eat mindfully!

I'd like to know about more non produce items, this list is repeated alot on this site so I get it already. What about grains, milk, eggs, meat, poultry, nuts, and all the rest of everything that makes up the diet? Where does it pay to be organic then and where is it ok to go with non antibiotic/ non steroid raised? I'd also like to know more about food additives, preservatives, artificial colors and artifical flavors! Lets keep the new valuable info coming!

Anonymous

03/19/2010 - 12:23am

labelwatch.com is an amazing website which shows the level of harmful ingredients in packaged foods. It was created by a woman who is local to where I live (another organic trait) and I recommend you take a browse!

Anonymous

03/19/2010 - 1:07pm

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