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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'm in So Cal, what are the best foods I can grow myself here and is there a good resource on line for the set up and management of the typical small family sized garden? I do have coyotes that chew on our sprinklers and damage them, I have gophers and moles and rabbits that ruin just about everything so I have a lot of pests. I don't have a lot of time but I sure have a lot of land and the wiliness to try. I did buy a tomato plant already in a large pot with a cage, and recently discovered a very fat and large caterpillar of some sort on it. I removed the creature because I assumed it was there to eat my plant and disposed of it. I haven't had to spray it yet with anything and don't want to. Still the tomatoes are growing sooo slowly and are on the soft side (I think) but they say they are suppose to be really large when they are ready. They are a nice bright red color and a little soft. I would think they'd be harder and green when they are still growing, but they look like they're ready but are way too small compared to the description on the tag. I mean, they are really small, like about 1 1/2 - 2 inches and they say they're supposed to get to be 2 lbs in weight! And no, they're not cherry tomatoes, those are round, these are bigger than those and not round. Thanks!

Anonymous

09/26/2010 - 6:45pm

I have been "living" organic and low chemical for about two years now. I started slowly, replacing the chemical things in my house and kitchen. I read the labIes of everything before I buy it, avoiding things like laureth sulfates, sodium lauryl and parabands in bath stuff, makeup and cleaning products. I go out of my way to drive to a store that has a good stock of organic veggies and fruits. I figured it was worth mentioning that it is not only what we eat, but all those "safe" chemicals that we absorbed through our skin that makes a difference. I'm not as fanatical as I sound, but I try to live healthier. And to the guy who said organic farming is ruining the croplands due to low harvest, I have a very small tomato garden with tons of tomatoes without the use of pesticides that would kill not only the bugs, but the wildlife and birds that frequent my yard. organic also doesn't contaminate the water that the wildlife needs to live.

Anonymous

08/27/2010 - 8:22pm

Great list to have and to print off and keep in a handbag for convenient use at the grocery! We try to buy organic when we can and we buy those that rank most contaminated for sure. I also like to shop at my local Farmer's Market where I have some local farmer's who are not "certified" organic but they at least "say" they do not use anything on their crops or gardens. We love all kinds of whole foods including fresh fruits, vegetables and even whole grains like Kamut Khorasan Wheat! Awesome :)

Anonymous

06/06/2010 - 12:07pm

I have been buying only organics since june of '09. So for about 10 months. Before that I had suffered from extremely terrible migraines once a week for the past 25 years. Since I was a small child. Since switching to organics I have not had a migraine in those 10 months. So it makes me really upset that people are trying to convince us that pesticides have no proven effect on us. We can clearly see the rise in the big things like cancers, autism, parkinson disease etc. But I also believe that it has effects on the small things also, like migraines. SO interesting how migraines are just a common problem for so many and doctors just tell us to live with it. CRAZY.
nichole@shinners.org

Anonymous

04/19/2010 - 5:29pm

Organic does something no pesticide laced crop can do, PROTECT WATER and the trace minerals in the soil. We're being told to take supplements of Selenium because it is not as abundant as it once was in the soil plants and animals are grown or raised on. Also 95 - 98% of the corn (think corn syrup, baby formula), soybeans( a key ingredient in all packaged foods) and sugar beets (sugar used in processed foods) grown in this country are from seeds that are genetically modified with ROUND-UP. This makes the seeds impervious to the herbicidal spray ROUND-UP which is sprayed onto crops. The same chemical that kills everything green in your yard kills everything in the fields....well, except the crops from seeds that have been genetically modified. The question then becomes: "What ARE you eating along with the crop itself?" If the federal government subsidized organic farmers to the extent that we, as citizens of that government, subsidize chemically treated crops, organic foods would not only cost less there would be a wider range of goods available. Now THAT would be a TRUE FREE MARKET!

Anonymous

04/18/2010 - 7:29pm

I think this is a great list to have, and I'm glad that it's getting out there to reach more people. However, I can't help but wonder if this limits our thinking of "organic". The reasons to support buying organic are general in two categories. The first is addressed here - health concerns from pesticides (which is quite valid); but the second has been skipped over - the environmental impacts. For example, sweet corn (frozen) is listed as okay to buy non-organic because pesticide residues are small, but corn is known for needing heavy amounts of fertilizers and pesticides to be grown, which causes many environmental problems and degrades the land.

It would be nice if there was an "all-around" list; one the factors in human and ecological health. (And maybe even workers' rights, to be overly optimistic.)

Anonymous

03/20/2010 - 1:38am

I get very confused. The lists of what should be bought organic are different depending on where you look. Some fruits and veggies are standard but things like tomatoes???? I thought that was a no-brainer....always to be bought organic. Same thing with peas! After having breast cancer last year, I am doing all that I can to eat as much organic as I can. Suggestions about conflicting lists?
Thanks.

Anonymous

03/19/2010 - 11:07pm

Organic is a threat to the environment. The fact is that due to lower crop yeilds, farmers are using land that was fallow and supported wildlife. They are planting on forested land. And they plough much deeper, disturbing the soil.

Anonymous

03/19/2010 - 5:14pm

1) regarding pesticides in fruits & veges, the EWG's research report I saw seems to indicate which foods had the largest VARIETY of various pesticides (celery was pretty high on the list, for example), but not which ones had the highest pesticide *load*. Maybe I missed that info. Can anyone clarify?

For example, a crop might have a lot of different pests, but maybe there's good research on pest life cycles and only 1 spray is needed for each pest. That would make for a lot different sprays, but not a lot of total pesticide in the food when harvested. Alternatively, a crop that has few pests or maybe even only 1 might have a low number of pesticides found. For example, about 30 years ago there was one major pest in onions (onion maggot) and the plants got sprayed weekly for the whole season. If I understand correctly, the EWG list would have showed low NUMBER of pesticides in that situation, but there sure would have been a LOT of that one pesticide.
Still, while there is research on supposed safety levels for individual pesticides, there is next to no research on the effects of multiple pesticides on humans. When I consider that many (though not all) pesticides are stored in fat tissues, anyone in a fat losing situation (whether overweight and dieting, or losing fat tissue while breast feeding an infant), I'm back to trying to buy organic food as often as the budget can afford. By the way, you DO know that "organic" doesn't mean that there are *no* pesticides on the food, don't you? It just means that the pesticides used are not chemically produced and that those used are from a botanical or mineral or other "natural" source. There are organic pesticides that are toxic to people. So don't forget to wash your produce - organic or not!
2) regarding the "white meat chicken" question above - - that refers to the breast, back and wing parts of a chicken. The white (lighter colored) meat is generally a leaner meat, The thighs, drumsticks, etc. make up the dark (darker colored) meat - generally considered to have more fat.

torysemo

03/19/2010 - 4:46pm

I support 100% organic heirloom food. Geneticaly modified foods are pushed by big business and even "accidentaly" spread their seed into other farms and them "somehow" discover these GM foods have come to appear on farms that did not buy their seeds. They promptly sue the poor farmer out of existance for having something on their property they never purchased or offer a pass if they buy their seed. A page right out mafia handbook.

As far as I'm concerned farmers need to band together and sue for the Genetic contamination or superior heirloom organic food.

Anonymous

03/19/2010 - 3:39pm

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