Is buying organic food worth it?
Consumers often find themselves standing in the local grocery store’s produce section, struggling to decide whether to shell out $2.98 for the head of organic lettuce or $1.50 for the head of conventional lettuce.
Which is the best choice for your money? What does $1.48 more buy you?
In recent years, as customer demand increased, local grocery stores began adding organic produce, like plastic containers full of organic spinach or arugula, organic apples, salad greens, and even potatoes, and many people are gobbling it up.
In fact, the Organic Trade Association says that Americans bought nearly $40 billion worth of organic food in 2016, which amounted to about 5% of total food sales. That’s up from $28.4 billion in 2013.
However, the sometimes hefty price tag compared to conventional produce can leave skeptical consumers wondering whether it's worth it. In a study performed by marketing group Mintel, it was found that 51 percent of Americans believe that labeling a food "organic" is merely a marketing ploy, intended to persuade consumers to pay more for the same food.
Others say that to choose conventional produce is to leave oneself open to cancer-causing chemicals.
Lisa Herzig, associate professor of nutrition at Fresno State University told the LA Times, "Buying organic does not necessarily mean there's more health and nutrition benefits. The pesticide content will be higher with conventional produce, but it's still at safe levels."
"Is it actually better for you?" Herzig said. "I'd go with no."
But Chensheng Lu, a professor of environmental exposure biology at Harvard University issued a warning about eating only conventional produce.
“The repetitive intakes of pesticides from foods could cause more harm to your health than sporadic exposure,” Lu told the Huffington Post.
It helps to know what earns a product the right to be labeled "organic." The United States Department of Agriculture has the job of overseeing farms that wish to become certified organic. You can read all the technical details at this site, but in short, the department requires that to be stamped organic, food must be grown using their approved methods.
"These methods integrate cultural, biological, and mechanical practices that foster cycling of resources, promote ecological balance, and conserve biodiversity. Synthetic fertilizers, sewage sludge, irradiation, and genetic engineering may not be used,” according to the USDA website.
These methods do come at a higher cost, of course.
According to the US Market News report for the second week of July 2017, here are the differences in cost among several popular produce items, on average, in our country.
Is the food itself ultimately better nutritionally than conventionally-grown produce? Recent studies say yes.
Antioxidants, those nutrients which are said to help the body fight diseases like heart disease and cancer and protect our cells, have been shown to be more abundant in organic produce. According to a study performed by the prestigious British Journal of Nutrition, switching from conventional to organically-grown produce adds enough extra antioxidants to the diet to equal up to two more servings of fruits and vegetables a day.
Professor Carlo Leifert, who led the British study, told Newcastle University researchers that, “This study demonstrates that choosing food produced according to organic standards can lead to increased intake of nutritionally desirable antioxidants and reduced exposure to toxic heavy metals.”
So if it’s better for one’s health, but the grocery budget is tight, which organic vegetables and fruits are the best choices?
The independent watchdog organization, the Environmental Working Group (EWG), studies pesticide residue on commonly purchased fruits and vegetables in the U.S., and creates two annual lists, the “Clean 15” list of produce with the least amount of pesticide residue, and the “Dirty Dozen,” which are those fruits and vegetables with the highest levels of pesticide residue.
The EWG says they test the produce after it has been washed as the consumer would wash it at home, so the levels of pesticide residue would not change after the consumer takes the food home and cleans it. Since some plants absorb pesticides systemically, the group says, no amount of washing would remove the pesticides used, as they literally become part of the produce itself.
According to their latest study, the worst offenders among conventionally-grown produce, and those they suggest consumers buy organic versions of, are as follows:
Alternately, the EWG's “Clean 15” list includes conventionally-grown produce that shows the least amount of residual pesticide residue after washing. If your budget is limited, these are the items that are least likely to expose you to those unwanted chemicals.
Ultimately, the EWG and other watchdog groups say that if you can't afford organic produce, it is still better to eat properly cleaned conventional produce than it is to eat processed and sugary foods. While they recommend eating organics when possible, they are not saying that one should never eat conventionally-grown fruits and vegetables at all.
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