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Many of us may want to buy organic foods—to decrease exposure to synthetic and artificial pesticides and fertilizers, to avoid foods that have been irradiated, and to encourage more sustainable farming practices for the health of our planet and animals, for example. Yet choosing to buy organic foods also costs more—often significantly more. In some cases, the organic choice is up to 50% higher in cost. Is it worth it?
The short answer is, yes. Here are just some of the reasons why:
- MORE NUTRIENTS: Organic foods often have a higher nutritional value. Because they are grown without pesticides and fertilizers, organic plants produce their own protection, which means they increase their production of nutrients (like vitamin C, iron, magnesium, phosphorus, and antioxidants), translating to more nutritious foods for you and me.
- PRESERVATION OF RESOURCES: Water is one of our most valuable resources, and organic farming has been shown to reduce pollutants that flow into groundwater. In addition, according to the Organic Trade Association, organic farming leads to richer soils that are less susceptible to erosion.
- HEALTHIER MEAT: If you are a meat eater, animal meats that are certified organic are not only fed organically-grown feed, they also aren’t confined 100% of the time (which is often the case on conventional farms) resulting in better fatty acid profiles. Additionally, they’re raised without antibiotics or synthetic growth hormones.
- LOWER PESTICIDES: Organic foods also provide significantly lower levels of pesticides, which are widely used in traditional agriculture. According to The National Academies Press, “Depending on dose, some pesticides can cause a range of adverse effects on human health, including cancer, acute and chronic injury to the nervous system, lung damage, reproductive dysfunction, and possibly dysfunction of the endocrine and immune systems.” Children and pregnant women are particularly vulnerable. A recent study indicated that switching from conventional to organic foods resulted in less pesticides (e.g., organophosphate and pyrethroïd pesticides) in the urine of French adults.
- LESS RISK FOR CANCER: Most recently, and most importantly, researchers have found organic foods may help reduce the risk of cancer. In a study with nearly 70,000 French adults over 4.5 years, when comparing participants’ organic food scores with cancer cases, researchers found a negative relationship between high scores (eating the most organic food) and overall cancer risk. For example, those who ate the most organic food were 25% less likely to develop cancer. When they looked at specific cancers, the researchers found those who ate the most organic foods were 34% less likely to have postmenopausal breast cancer, 86% less likely to develop non-Hodgkin lymphoma, and 76% less likely to get cancers of the lymph system. This was true even when participants were eating a lower quality diet. While there is a lot of compelling evidence, it is difficult to assess how much of the effect is based on eating organic foods alone. In addition, previous studies found either no effect or a smaller effect from eating organic foods. Nonetheless, the researchers concluded that much of the beneficial effects stem from the lower levels of pesticides, particularly glyphosate, malathion, and diazion, which have all previously been associated with increased risk of non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma.
- LOWER RISK FOR METABOLIC SYNDROME: Higher organic food consumption has also been associated with a lower risk of metabolic syndrome, which is a predictor or contributor to cardiovascular disease, obesity, type 2 diabetes, and others.
- BETTER TASTE: Finally, organic produce may also simply taste better. Some studies have found that several fruits and vegetables (including apples, strawberries, potatoes, and tomatoes) may provide improved taste and texture when compared to conventionally grown produce.
What are organic “must-haves” and “nice-to-haves”?
Nearly 70% of Americans buy organic foods at least occasionally, and about a third purchase it weekly. While there are numerous benefits to eating organic, cost is still a concern. The EWG (Environmental Working Group) tests a wide range of produce every year and provides their list of the “Dirty Dozen” foods containing the highest levels of pesticides in that year. According to the EWG’s Shopper’s Guide to Pesticides in Produce, the foods found with the highest levels of pesticides in 2018 were:
- Sweet Bell Peppers
The EWG also provides a list of their “Clean Fifteen,” which is a list of produce with the least number of pesticides, including:
- Sweet Corn
- Frozen Sweet Peas
- Honeydew Melons
Whenever possible, it makes sense to reach for organic produce—even if that means spending a bit more. However, it’s also important to remember that there are numerous benefits to eating more fruits and vegetables overall, so if the choice is between eating conventionally grown produce or none at all, eat your vegetables—even if they aren’t organic.