These days, we have a lot on our plates (and maybe not figuratively). With recent sky-high food prices and many North Americans not meeting their daily recommendation for fruits and vegetables (1,2), it can be hard to save a spot for organic foods. With these challenges in mind, should choosing organic over non-organic foods be something to add to our ‘decision plates’? Let’s go deeper to answer whether choosing organic is worthwhile choice for you while answering some related questions:
To be certified as organic, a farmer must not use any synthetic pesticides, herbicides or fertilizers. Note that approved natural pesticides may still be used. The farm must also not use GMOs, antibiotics, irradiation or ionizing radiation. The criteria from the U.S. Department of Agriculture, for example, goes on to include the need to minimize contamination from farms next door and for animals to be fed with organic food (3). To receive an USDA Organic seal, the product must contain 95% of more organic parts (3). The cost of this high maintenance approach compared to conventional farming comes with a hefty price tag for farms which then translates to higher costs (usually 50% or more than conventional foods) at the grocery store checkout. That’s not to say that it is not worthwhile to become an organic farm. Organic farming practice is known for having a lower environmental impact in improving soil quality and protecting resources while offering a safer environment for workers, among other benefits (4).
Perhaps the first thing that comes to mind when people think of organic foods, is that they are ‘pesticide-free’ and non-organic foods are not. Although the lines can get blurry here, let’s get clear with some facts. Organic foods are made without synthetic pesticides, herbicides and fertilizers however farmers of organic produce can still use natural pesticides as long as they have been approved for use (3). It gets tricky here as some countries’ national organic programs, such as the one in the U.S., do not test organic pesticide residues on produce each year or there is only a small portion that are tested alongside their conventional parts in the Pesticide Detection Program (PDP) (5). That raises the question of whether the non-synthetic pesticides are also safe. In the PDP, which sampled pesticides residues in over 9000 products (~8.7% were organic and the rest were conventional products), about 99% of the samples had pesticide residues that were well below the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) amounts allowed (5). In Canada and Europe, another measure called the Maximum Residue Level (MRL) is used to identify pesticide dose that could be a health risk to consumers if consumed above this level. There is consensus that the intake of pesticides from the diet do not pose a risk to consumers if it is below the MRL. In fact, surveys done by agricultural authorities in both Europe and the USA found that most (98% or more) of the foods sampled contain pesticide levels that are below the MRL (6). Yet, there is still some debate around whether repeated exposure to even low levels of pesticides in the diet would be a health risk in the long-term (6, 7). Even though organic diets consistently offer lower (note not absence of) pesticide residues exposure, it is unknown if this impacts the consumer’s health as well (6,7)
In general, the research points out that there is not enough evidence to suggest whether any harm can be caused by consuming small amounts of pesticides (8). In Canada, the Canadian Food Inspection Agency (CFIA) is responsible for testing the safety of all foods for consumption including organic and non-organic produce. Additionally, several studies will conclude that the amounts of pesticides (where tested) in both organic and non-organic foods are considered low risk for going beyond the allowed limit. For additional reference and reassurance, a helpful place to start is the Safe Fruits and Veggies website (9), created by the non-profit Alliance for Food and Farming (AFF). AFF delivers evidenced-based information on the safety of produce while representing both organic and conventional farmers. Using the calculation tool, you can find out how many servings of a produce one would need to eat in order to reach some adverse effect from pesticides residues in produce.
For example by using the calculator, you can find out that a woman could eat “13225 servings of blueberries in one day without experiencing any effect even if the blueberries have the highest pesticide residue recorded for blueberries by the USDA” (9). Keep in mind this number is in servings, so that’s a lot of blueberries!
Using this resource, you may have also noticed that the adverse effect levels and calculations are different among women, men, children and teens. For example, some studies suggest that children may have increased sensitivity to pesticide residues and other chemicals compared to adults because of their vulnerable growth state. At the same time there is not enough data and evidence to be certain that organic foods are a better choice for children over non-organic foods (10).
If pesticides are a concern, some precautionary practices to follow prior to consuming produce (whether organic of not) include (11):
Probably one of the biggest debates around choosing organic foods is their perceived superior nutritional quality. In fact, this is one of the most common reasons why people choose organic products (12). Keep in mind that numerous factors affect the nutritional quality of a food outside of organic practices including but not limited to field variation, season of growth, agricultural practices, original soil quality and the food variety that will be included to test for nutrient composition. With so many variables, this means that answering the above question isn’t as easy as one might think. So where do we go from here?
There is certainly some evidence and direction that depending on the organic food, it has yielded greater nutrients from antioxidants (13) to omega-3s and certain micronutrients (14). In general, organic produce may have higher antioxidants but these amounts are not significant enough to impact one’s health (13). The same can be said for organic milk which may contain more omega-3s, iron, and vitamin E compared to regular milk (15, 16). The main reason for this difference, for example, is dependent on whether the cows are grass-fed and not necessarily from organic practices as a whole (14). Additionally, when we compare nutrient profiles, it’s good to be critical and look at the big picture. For example, organic milk has an (insignificantly) greater amount of omega -3s but are we consuming milk to meet our omega-3 needs? From a nutrition perspective, milk consumption in recommended quantities would make a good contribution to protein, calcium, vitamin D and vitamin B12 needs and even some fair contributions to other nutrient needs. However, Omega-3s needs would not be one of them if we looked at milk consumption as a whole and what can be consumed per serving.
While it’s great to be health conscious and look for improved nutrition options (they do exist!), be weary of claims that report organic food consumption with reduced risk of disease or cancer. Even research studies can have their own flaws, failing to account for well-known confounders. These are variables that impact the outcome but are not necessary the direct variables of interest. For example, a hypothetical claim may state that organic food consumption is associated with reduced risk of cancer. Later you find the study with said claim failed to account for the fact that the same people who eat these organic foods are also more physically active, have healthier habits, are financially stable (and can afford more nutritious foods) or have obtained higher education compared than those who eat conventionally grown foods. Any combination of those other variables could have (and likely have) impacted the individual’s risk for cancer and not solely because they were eating organic food itself. It is common to find that those who consume organic foods regularly are also more health-conscious and better-able (financially, educationally, etc) to make healthy choices (ie. higher ratio of plant foods to animal foods) compared to those who do not consume organic foods (15,17).
Overall, the consensus points to that there is not enough evidence to prove whether organic foods are more nutritious than regular foods (4).
The organic food conversation would not be complete without a mention of ‘The Clean 15’ and ‘The Dirty Dozen’ lists which have raised a good amount of caution when it comes to eating certain produce. However, is this heightened caution warranted and are the lists valid?
For those who are new to the lists, both are created by the Environmental Working Group (EWG); a non-profit that “[empowers] you with breakthrough research to make informed choices and live a healthy life in a healthy environment.”(18) Sounds like a solid mission, right? The lists are updated every year and uses data from the PDP (mentioned earlier) to identify conventional produce with the most pesticides. The Clean 15’ and ‘The Dirty Dozen’ lists, as the names suggest, indicate the top conventional produce with the lowest amount of pesticides or those that are likely to have the most pesticides remaining even after they have been washed, respectively. Here are the so-called heroes and villains of produce, as classified by the EWG:
This all sounds really informative and tied to a great mission. However, it's not without drawbacks. For one, the EWG receives significant funding from brands producing organic foods (18) which suggests some bias at play. Some additional criticism with the lists include:
Despite exaggerations on toxicity and potentially other flaws of this list, there is some credit to be given for EWG’s recognition on fruits and vegetable consumption as a whole which is acts as a nice summary:
“Everyone should eat plenty of fresh fruits and vegetables, whether organic or conventionally grown. The health benefits of such a diet outweigh the risks of pesticide exposure” (21)
Yes, that’s right. Having conventional vegetables is still better than having no vegetables. Choosing to eat organic may be for personal reasons not discussed, such as better taste and/or support for the environment but it should never have to cause worry when choosing the otherwise safe conventional counterparts, especially if it is the most accessible option. Whether you choose to eat conventionally or organically-grown fruits and vegetables, know that nutritional benefits of consistent consumption far outweigh the risks and are forever at your side!