Ask The Expert: When Should You Buy Buy Organic Food Versus Conventional?
You’ve made the smart and healthy choice to add more plants to your diet, but now you might be wondering if you should start choosing organic fruits and vegetables instead of conventional produce. Just the prospect of eating organic food can add another layer of confusion when it comes to choosing your food a plant-based diet. Is it better to only eat organic, even if that means eating less plants overall? Or should you opt for conventional and push the worry of chemicals and pesticides to the back of your mind? Rather than feeling perplexed in the produce section, here are the facts about organic versus conventional, so you can make the right decision for you.
Q: What Does Organic Really Mean?
A: The term “organic” is regulated by the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA), so food has to meet certain criteria before baring the “organic” seal. Produce can be labeled organic if it’s grown on soil that hasn’t been contaminated with any prohibited substances (most synthetic fertilizers and pesticides) for at least three years before the harvest. It seems simple enough, right? Well, it’s not all black and white.
The National List of Allowed and Prohibited Substances defines synthetic and natural substances that can and cannot be used in organic crop production. You may be surprised to find out that there are a limited number of non-organic substances that may be used to grow organic products in particular situations. And, organic farmers utilize pesticides made from natural materials to grow their crops. That means organic crops are not free from all pesticides, just the synthetic ones.
In other words, the term “organic” is confusing, and all of the mixed messages can cause analysis paralysis when standing in the produce aisle. As a matter of fact, a recent study in Nutrition Today found that uncertainty about organic produce messaging can cause people to buy fewer fruits and vegetables overall.
Deciphering the Dirty Dozen
The Dirty Dozen and Clean 15 are two lists that perpetuate the skepticism over the organic versus conventional debate. The Environmental Working Group (EWG) is a non-profit organization that analyzes a combination of the USDA’s test data with their own tests to determine the types of fruits and vegetables containing the largest amount of pesticides. The 12 with the most pesticides make up the Dirty Dozen, while the ones with the least pesticides are considered to be the Clean 15.
These lists make for sensationalized headlines, but it’s not as bad as it sounds. Carl Winter, Ph.D., toxicologist at the University of California, Davis, told the Alliance for Food and Farming (a nonprofit organization made up of both organic and conventional farmers) that the EWG's methodology for testing the produce is arbitrary. "To accurately assess consumer risks from pesticides, one needs to consider the amount of residue on the foods...the amount of food consumed… [and] the toxicity of the pesticides. The methodology used by EWG ignores all three," says Winter. Plus, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) suggests washing your produce under running tap water, which usually removes or eliminates any existing residues on both organic and conventional produce.
A paper in the Journal of Toxicology studied the EWG's Dirty Dozen list and found that exposure to the most commonly detected pesticides creates very little health risks. The authors add that eating organic produce in place of conventional doesn't reduce these tiny risks. In other words, the Dirty Dozen list creates more stress than is necessary, and you shouldn’t let it dissuade you from buying produce.
Q: When Should You Buy Organic?
A: Let’s be honest, organic produce is expensive. If you can afford to buy it and it’s important to you, go ahead and add it to your shopping list. But if organic is outside of your budget, eating conventional plant-based food is better than not eating any at all. Unfortunately, only one in 10 Americans eat the recommended amount of fruits and veggies each day, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), and negative messages about products don't help. To get your daily doses of vitamins, minerals, antioxidants, and fiber, it’s better to eat conventional fruits and vegetables than none at all.
Bottom line: Eat more plants, no matter which type you choose.