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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 a organic farmer. The best advice I can give anyone is buy local. Your local farmer is less likely to use GMO seeds. Watch your corn though. Most corn seeds have been genetically modified. I also noticed that regular potatoes were not on the highly synthetic spray list, they are. Also another bit of advice I can give is educate yourselves on what "organic" actually means. Ask your local farmer, we love talking about our plants and land!

Anonymous

03/19/2010 - 2:48pm

Please remember that the pesticides and herbicides that are put on plants can have harmful effects on the environment as well. While I understand that the demand is too high for there non-organic farming to be eliminated, we need to accept the fact that herbicides and pesticides will have a negative impact on more than just the human body. Be conscious of this and support your local organic farmers.

Anonymous

03/19/2010 - 2:07pm

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 - 2:07pm

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 - 1:23am

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

03/19/2010 - 12:07am

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 - 11:01pm

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 - 10:50pm

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 - 9:05am

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 - 7:53am

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 - 8:08pm

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