Organic is big business, and don’t let anyone tell you otherwise. In the U.S. alone, organic sales reached a new record of $49.4 billion in 2017. That’s up 6.4 percent from the previous year and shows new sales of nearly $3.5 billion (according to data from the Organic Trade Association).1
At the top of the market is organic fruits and vegetables, as expected, but organic meat and poultry are also rising in popularity, suggesting that more and more families are thinking about converting to organic overall. Whether this is due to fear of pesticide residue or other concerns isn’t clear, but the numbers are there.
But, there are a lot of questions and myths swirling around this hot category. There are indeed net benefits to shopping organic, but they may not be exactly what you think. In addition, not all organic foods are created equal – read on to understand.
The Organic Appeal
The difference between organic and non-organic foods, as defined by the USDA, is all in how things are produced.
USDA certified organic fruits and vegetables are generally grown without the use of pesticides, synthetic fertilizers, sewage sludge, bioengineering, or ionizing radiation.
Animals that provide meat or eggs must be raised without any antibiotics or growth hormones.2
Also, having no pesticides sounds very appealing and provides extra peace of mind regarding your purchases. And some of the animal studies on the books are focused on singular pesticides. But, some long-term human studies have shown that women’s exposure to pesticides and pesticide residue during pregnancy, measured through urine samples, were associated with negative impacts on their children’s IQ and neurobehavioral development, as well as with ADHD diagnoses.3 But let’s be clear, the science here is incomplete when it comes to making a final conclusion regarding what pesticide levels are truly dangerous.
What we can determine is that it may be worth it for people, especially pregnant women or those planning on becoming to become pregnant, to err on the side of safety and eat organic.
How Does The Organic Appeal Stand Up To Science?
The potential for added safety for eating organic is evident, but things start to get murky when we add nutrition into the equation. Many people will tell you that organic fruits and vegetables are not only free of pesticides and other substances but that the organic farming process makes for better nutrient content.
One major study from Stanford University made headlines in 2012 when it concluded that organic foods appeared to provide little nutritional benefit compared to their conventional counterparts. The study authors did see the potential for reduced exposure to pesticide residue and antibiotic-bacteria, though.4
These findings were met with rebuttals from organic supporters, who pointed out that adequate attention was not given to the effects of prolonged pesticide exposure and its relationship to health risk. Several studies since then have shown that the potential for added nutrition from an organic diet may be minimal, but the freedom from pesticides, pesticide residue, and chemicals may be more important than expected.5
One study focusing particularly on children stated that the most important thing to do is have a balanced diet of fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and low-fat or fat-free dairy products, regardless of whether the foods are conventional or organic.6
However, other studies show potential nutritional benefits beyond safety when eating organic. These include higher levels of vitamin C, iron, magnesium, and phosphorus than non-organic varieties of the same foods. On average, some organic crops had more antioxidants as well, which have a variety of health functions.
The catch? Nutrient content across the studies varied greatly due to differences in ground cover, as well as year to year and farmer to farmer.7
The Dirty Dozen and Clean Fifteen
So, at this point, we’ve established that organic food is the best way to avoid pesticide consumption, which could potentially have harmful effects. But one thing that this last study points out is that variance plays a role. Not every crop is the same, whether we’re talking fruits, vegetables, grains, livestock, or anything else.
The same applies to pesticides. Different crops require different farming approaches, and many times, this means more pest control. As a result, different foods have different levels of pesticide residue, which may be concerning to shoppers. To help people figure out what may be worth avoiding/shopping organic for, EWG releases something called the Dirty Dozen list every year.
This list is the result of analyzing pesticide residue testing data from the U.S. Department of Agriculture and Food and Drug Administration to see the worst offenders in terms of pesticides.
The “Dirty Dozen” are the 12 foods with the most pesticide residue. Here’s how they ranked this year.8
- Sweet Bell Peppers
These fruits and vegetables are staples of many diets across the country so you can see why people may be a bit unnerved and switch to organic. Notably, the most contaminated sample of strawberries tested positive for 20 different pesticides, and ¾ of spinach samples tested positive for a neurotoxic pesticide banned in Europe.9
However, there is a light side to this as well. EWG (Environmental Working Group) also uses the data to come up with the “Clean 15,” a complimentary list to the Dirty Dozen that shows crops with lower levels of pesticide residue.10
- Sweet Corn
- Sweet peas (frozen)
What does this mean for you? Let’s address the elephant in the room when it comes to eating organic: price. Many people are interested in eating organic after hearing about pesticides and other potential benefits, but find it costs too much. This cost stems from the fact that organic farms are often smaller, require more labor and management costs, and don’t get federal subsidies from the government in many cases.11 This can also vary by region, and if you have local farms nearby to buy from.
However, if you are concerned about pesticides and want to give organic a try, it may pay to buy some of the top fruits and vegetables off the Dirty Dozen, as this is where your money will give you the most safety and peace of mind. On the other hand, items off the Clean Fifteen are likely where you can afford to buy conventional if you wish, as pesticides are less present.
In addition, when you shop organic, you are contributing to positives beyond your own health.
For example, at the moment, conventional farming procedures use a lot more fossil fuels than organic food production. One study shows that sustainable farming uses 23% to 56% less fossil energy than conventional farming methods.12 By supporting these businesses, you help to conserve energy and reduce our carbon footprint.
Another way that organic farming helps the environment is when it comes to soil erosion, a threat that can lead to flooding, drought, and air pollution.13 Sustainable farming efforts like windbreaks and cover crops lower incidence of soil erosion. In addition, the fact that no pesticides are used means that whatever soil does erode won’t lead to further pesticides in the air.
In the End…
The thing to understand about eating organic is that while it may not be a cure-all, there is evidence to suggest that it may improve your quality of life by avoiding substances that may be harmful.
The best way you can get the most out of your organic purchases is to look carefully at the farms you are supporting with your purchases. Exactly how much organic material is in your produce? Are the farms practicing sustainable agriculture? If you back the right businesses, organic shopping can not only help you but the environment as well – a transaction where everyone wins.