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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 am totally agree that eating organic is better than regulars, even when is more expencer. is hard to by everything organic, most of them I have to by organic, I see the result in my family when we star it eating organic, a lot of changing. We star losing weit we have more energy and we feel different. But still think I Sould by even meet eggs and everything organic?

Xochitl.

Anonymous

03/09/2013 - 2:47pm

It isn't any better for the evironment, organic farming practices include the use of pesticides, just not synthetic. On any case, there is not enough resources on earth to feed everyone using organic farming methods. It requires more land, water, labor, etc. it's why our food costs have decreased...

Anonymous

03/19/2013 - 6:33pm

I think non-organic is better by a long ways!

Anonymous

03/24/2013 - 3:05pm

While I agree that we can't live forever, and that organic is more expensive than factory farmed foods I have to say that a lady in the grocery store one day made a lot of sense...she said that if you can only afford to buy a few items that are organic, buy all your fats in organic form. This makes perfect sense since, as a massage therapist, I learned in anatomy and physiology that the body (humans and animals alike) store toxins in the fat. Whenever an organism enters the body and triggers the body to treat it like a toxin, it is wrapped in fat and "stuck" somewhere where it cannot harm the body. Thus, it makes sense that buying organic fats would decrease your toxin load far more than any other measure. I try to buy organic everything, but when money doesn't flow in as quickly as it's flowing out...then at least I buy organic meats, eggs, butter, milk and oils. I figure every little bit helps and if possible, the thing I try to stay away from even more than chemicals on the food are GMO products. I don't think we know enough to be messing around with the DNA structure of organisms we are going to ingest.

Anonymous

04/03/2013 - 12:52am

To the comment on who certifies the food, I was just thinking the same thing.
How can we really prove that the organic foods that we buy at a local grocery
store are truly free of pesticides, etc. Also, they could be cross contaminated
and who knows what happens to the food during shipment.

Anonymous

04/11/2013 - 5:28pm

I was told that if babies are introduced to organic food they will have problem taking those conventional food later cos they do not get used to the chemical substances found in the food..is that true?pls advise

Anonymous

04/27/2013 - 9:45am

There should be no such thing as organic vs conventional. Everything should be grown with integrity and nutrition in mind. If people cared about one another enough to care for the crops right, we'd have better quality food. Profit for harming others is a sickness and should be deemed unacceptable. What's the difference if a doctor harms you intentionally or the food industry? The doctor loses his license. Not right. Harm is harm. And if you believe we don't have enough food to go around, please, tell me the last time you went to the market and the shelves were bare! If you look around, we have a plethora of malnourished humans. These days, we call it obesity. We're toxic and shutting down our cells (cancer) and organs! Do the best you can, but when possible, do not buy conventionsl or processed food. Grow a garden, learn to cook and enjoy nutrient dense (real) food, go to a farmers' market. Anything you do to take responsibility for yourself not only proves to benefit you, but all of humankind as well.

Anonymous

05/04/2013 - 12:28am

cantaloupe??? ohhh you mean rockmelon!!! i was confused for a second thinking an animal was accidently added :)

- belinda :)
-oh and corey :P

Anonymous

05/07/2013 - 9:18pm

It is time to update this article. Last year Stanford University compiled over 200 peer reviewed studies and did one of their own (published in journal Annals of Internal Medicine) which showed that their is zero (0) difference between organic and conventional foods in terms of nutrition.
Also, if you are a lower income individual you cannot afford to eat organic. I have been to over 50 farmers markets east of the Mississippi and the food is always twice the price for half the quantity (essentially making it 4x the price of conventional). It is time that you guys start pushing for conventional fruits and vegetables and grains and lean meats as a viable cure to the obesity epidemic in the poorer American communities and stop treating expensive organic as the only healthy choice.

Anonymous

05/10/2013 - 2:41pm

I'd like to know the amount of pesticides that are used on non-organic fruit. My wife and I have recently started to buy organic fruit and even though we find they taste far better the price is extortionate. We feel that the supermarkets are behind this. Example, we know that supermarkets can sell organic produce at the same price as we have been able to buy organic strawberries from a large chain supermarket at the same price as non-organic ones. So why can't all supermarkets do this?

Also, we are quite fed up with the labelling. Many poultry suppliers tell us what their chickens do not contain, they never tell us what they do contain. To say 'grain fed' is laughable. They don't tell you that the chicken is injected with growth hormones later.

I want to know what is in the food I am eating and where it came from. I do not want to know what it does not contain, I want to know what it does contain.

Anonymous

05/12/2013 - 11:05pm

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