How Important Is Organic?

People ask me this question all the time, and it’s a question I’ve asked many times myself. In the face of organic food being more expensive and often harder to find, how important is organic?

According to Wikipedia, organic food is defined as being produced without synthetic pesticides, chemical fertilizers, irradiation, industrial solvents, chemical food additives or genetically modified organisms (GMOs). If livestock are involved, they must have regular access to pasture and free of antibiotics and growth hormones.

Organic farming practices also support sustainability, environmental objectives, and in the case of animals, humane treatment. In the US, Canada and Australia, foods must contain 95% organic ingredients to be labeled “organic.”

The “research” on whether organic food has overall higher nutritional value is described as inconclusive, but I’m frankly suspicious of this in the face of simple common sense. How could less toxic food not be better for us? (And who is funding this research?) Another factor is that organic produce may have higher nutritional value because in the absence of pesticides and fertilizers, plants may have higher production of the phytochemicals (vitamins and antioxidants) that naturally strengthen to bugs and weeds.

It seems clear that all other things being equal, organic food is a better choice than conventional food. But since all other things are never equal, and cost can be a significant factor in this decision, when does it make the most sense to spring for organic?

To help with this decision the Environmental Working Group (EWG) has identified the Dirty Dozen and the Clean Fifteen, based on the levels of pesticides used to grow various types of fruits and vegetables. If you’re going to spend more for produce, it makes sense to do so for the ones with the highest toxic load, and perhaps to go conventional and save on the cleaner options. In general, conventional foods with their own protective peels (i.e. grapefruit) seem safer than those whose skin we eat (i.e. cherries). Both lists are shown below.

Personally, knowing about their conventional production methods, I also feel strongly about choosing organic milk and other dairy products. I don’t use a lot of them, so cost is not a big factor, but the quality difference is dramatic. With meat and poultry, unfortunately (sigh), cost seems to be more of a factor.

Another reason it can be important to choose organic is to create more demand, which will increase production and reduce costs. Remember, we vote with our pocketbooks, and we can vote for cleaner food.

Dirty Dozen 2017

  • Apples
  • Celery
  • Sweet bell peppers
  • Peaches
  • Strawberries
  • Nectarines
  • Grapes
  • Spinach
  • Potatoes
  • Pears
  • Cherries
  • Tomatoes

Clean Fifteen 2017

  • Sweet corn
  • Avocado
  • Pineapple
  • Cabbage
  • Onion
  • Sweet peas (frozen)
  • Papaya
  • Asparagus
  • Mango
  • Eggplant
  • Honeydew
  • Kiwi
  • Cantaloupe
  • Cauliflower
  • Grapefruit


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