Going organic – is it worth the money?

Written by: Bola Onime, BSN, RN, CDE

When planning your diet, chances are you are tasked with analyzing the higher financial cost versus the health benefits of organic foods compared to conventional foods. You are probably compelled to ask, “Is it worth paying 10 to 40 percent more, on average, for fruits from one bin as opposed to another, even though they appear, on a cursory glance, to be equals?”

To answer this question, in an article for the Columbia University Department of Surgery, clinical nutritionist Deborah Gerszberg discusses the pros and cons of opting for organic products.

Organic foods, according to Gerszberg, are grown and processed without the aid of synthetic fertilizer, pesticides, antibiotics or hormones. The United States Department of Agriculture implemented the National Organic Program, which sets the standard for organic crop and livestock production.

According to a clinical report from the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP), for products to receive an “organic” label, they must consist of at least 95 percent of organically processed ingredients, and the remaining 5 percent must be from the USDA’s approved list.

When examining the safety of conventional food, the government considers two main factors: chemical contamination and bacterial contamination.

The chemicals problems

The Environmental Protection Agency limits how much residue from pesticides and other agricultural chemicals may be allowed on conventional foods. This is because several chemicals have been shown to wreck havock in our endocrine and reproductive systems, cause birth defects, asthma, behavior changes, and cancer.

But it turns out that pesticide poisoning is a persistent problem in the agricultural setting, according to the AAP report.

“Chronic exposure among farm workers has been associated with numerous adult health,” the report states.

But that’s not all. Most people happen to be exposed to pesticides primarily through their diets, not farming.  In the interest of fairness, the report also advises consumers to consider that no studies have experimentally examined whether exposure to pesticides from conventionally grown foods lead to problems with neurodevelopmental health outcomes.

The bacteria problem

For meat, bacteria is the main concern between organic and conventional products. According to a systematic review by Smith-Spangler et al, published in 2012 in the Annals of Internal Medicine, the presence of bacteria didn’t differ between organic and conventional produce. However, the study found, conventional chicken and pork were significantly more likely to be contaminated with bacteria that were resistant to at least three or more antibiotics. Resistance to bacteria is due to many conventional animal farms using low doses of antibiotics on the livestock to speed up growth without increasing feed.

Because some bacteria found in conventional meat products are resistant to antibiotics, Gerszberg and other experts believe that eating organic or antibiotic-free meats can help lower the risk of food-borne illnesses.

Are organically grown food more nutritious?

The Smith-Spangler analysis concluded that there is no evidence that organic foods have higher nutritious values than conventional foods.  The AAP report makes clear that a food’s nutrition is impacted by several factors, including the local soil characteristics, geographic location of a farm, climactic conditions, storage after harvest and maturity at the time of harvest. While the academy suggests that more research is needed on this topic, it emphasizes that there does not appear to be a convincing evidence at this time of a “substantial difference in the nutritional quality of organic versus conventional produce.”

For shoppers who are on a budget and but would like going organic, the Columbia professor Gerszberg gives a few tips:

  • Compare prices — not all organic foods are exceptionally more expensive than their conventional counterparts.
  • Buy organic foods when they are in season —  this saves money and gives you a better tasting product.
  • Discarding the skin? — Purchase conventional produce if you are going to discard the skin.
  • Are you immunocompromised? — Persons with weakened immune systems, young children and pregnant women are more susceptible to the risks posed by conventional foods.
  • Try to buy organic animal products as often as possible — even if that means eating less meat and substituting with other proteins.
  • Buy from a crop share or Community Supports Agriculture — To learn more or to find local foods and farmers markets near you, visit the website for Local Harvest.

The Environmental Working Group (EWG) Guides

The EWG is a nonprofit, non-partisan organization, and produces two guides annually to help shoppers make decisions on organic or conventional food based on pesticide residue.

The group’s 2016 Clean 15 list — or those products least likely to hold residue from pesticides:

They include: avocados, corn, pineapples, cabbage, sweet peas, onions, asparagus, mangoes, papayas, kiwi, eggplant, honeydew, grapefruit, cantaloupe and cauliflowers.

EWG’s 2016 Dirty Dozen — or produce with the highest pesticides loads:

Strawberries, apples, nectarines, peaches, celery, grapes, cherries, spinach, tomatoes, bell peppers, cherry tomatoes and cucumbers.

On to You

What do you think about organic versus conventionally grown foods? Share you thoughts by leaving a comment.

About the Author

Bola Onime is a mom who loves to whip up healthy meals. She boasts more than ten years of experience working as a nurse. She is also a certified diabetes educator and enjoys educating persons with diabetes — as well as everyone else — about healthy food, treatment, and life choices.

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