When you shop for groceries, do you wonder if that organic apple is worth the extra dollar a pound? And what is that extra dollar buying you, anyway?
A September 2012 study published in the Annals of Internal Medicine concluded that organic produce does not have any significant nutritional benefit over conventionally grown fruits and veggies. However, the study also concluded that organic produce does contain significantly less pesticide residue.
For many consumers, a higher level of nutrients isn’t the only reason to buy organic. Some of the other reasons parents choose organic are to support organic farming practices and to reduce pesticide exposure both in their diet and in the exposure of farm workers. Organic farming practices are also considered by many to be more environmentally friendly, or “green,” than conventional farming.
Do the pesticides applied to produce get into our bodies? They do, according to a study published in Environmental Health Perspectives in April 2008. In the Children’s Pesticide Exposure Study, 23 children between the ages of 3 and 11 in the greater Seattle area who usually ate conventional diets switched to organic equivalents for five consecutive days twice during the yearlong study. Urine samples were tested during the organic and conventional phases for metabolites (breakdown products) of organ phosphorous pesticides. The results? The two most commonly detected metabolites found during the conventional phase fell to undetectable or almost undetectable levels by the end of the organic phase. The authors of the study concluded that diet is a major source of pesticide exposure in kids.
So, what does it all mean?
Even the authors of the study say that there is no definite link between dietary pesticide exposure and health problems. And the experts seem to be split. The Environmental Working Group says the benefits of eating fruits and vegetables, whether organic or not, outweigh the risks of pesticide exposure.
But many think, whether proven or not, that organic is safer. One side claims the amount of pesticide residue in conventional produce is too low to be of concern, but the other side argues the cumulative effect of ingesting small amounts of pesticides has yet to be well-studied.
The Children’s Environmental Health Network says children are more vulnerable to pesticide exposure because of their small size and faster metabolisms. Also, it’s theorized that because children’s bodies are growing, these chemicals might be more harmful to kids than to adults. By that standard, pregnant women would be better off with organic produce as well.
The Environmental Working Group (EWG) scored 48 fruits and vegetables by their pesticide load. They call the 12 items highest in pesticide residue the “Dirty Dozen.” If you are concerned about pesticides in your family’s diet, substituting organic for the “Dirty Dozen” would significantly reduce your exposure. They call the 15 items lowest in pesticide residue the “Clean Fifteen.” If you are concerned about the cost of organic produce, buying conventionally-grown items on this list can ease the burden on your pocketbook.
There are ways to get organic produce for less. First, check sales. Most major grocers offer some organic produce in their weekly sale items. Second, try alternative shopping venues, like farmer’s markets. Community-supported agriculture (CSA) is another option. You buy a “share” and get a weekly box of produce. You’ll have to drive to a pickup location, but there is a cost savings in cutting out the middle man. Not all CSA programs are organic, so check before you buy. The EWG provides a free “Good Food on a Tight Budget” shopping guide. The guide lists 100 low-cost, high-nutrient foods along with recipes.
One thing all experts seem to agree on is that eating fresh produce is good for overall health. If you want to limit your family’s exposure to pesticides, wash all produce well and buy organic when you can.
Tiffany Doerr Guerzon is a freelance writer and mother of three children.