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Organic produce - is it worth it?

Published on: April 01, 2010

Child with organic tomatoOrganics are expensive, but even so, when Seattle mom Ruthanne Parker goes to the store, she spends the extra money on a few items her son, Torben, and daughter, Christine, will eat. For Parker, buying organic apples, milk, cantaloupe, potatoes, celery and strawberries is about both taste and safety. While she hasn’t done extensive research, Parker says she has heard enough about pesticides to be concerned. She focuses on the “dirty dozen” — 12 fruits and vegetables tagged by the nonprofit Environmental Working Group as containing the most harmful chemical residues (see sidebar). “It can’t hurt to buy organic for those things,” Parker says, “and it is better for the earth.” Parker also believes that organic produce has more nutritional value than the same produce, conventionally grown. But does it?

More nutritious?

A lot of money rides on the answer to that question. According to the Organic Trade Association, sales of organic food in the U.S. rose from $1 billion in 1990 to an estimated $20 billion in 2007, and could be as high as $25 billion in 2009. Organics are booming — partly because of the widespread belief that they are more nutritious.

But last summer, a British study, published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition (AJCN), examined individual studies and concluded that there was no significant nutrient difference between organically and conventionally grown produce — or at least nothing “of public health relevance.” That controversial study is being challenged. One of the leading critics is Dr. Charles Benbrook, chief scientist of the Organic Center, a nonprofit research and advocacy group. Benbrook’s own research has found “nutritional superiority” in many organically grown fruits and vegetables, and Benbrook himself has written a detailed analysis of the British report, which he says used flawed data and methods.

Benbrook’s study compared 236 “matched pairs” of measurements, including both organic and conventional samples, looking for differences in 11 nutrients. The conclusion? Organics were “nutritionally superior” in 61 percent of the samples, while conventionally grown produce was more nutrient dense in only 37 percent of the samples tested. The most significant differences were found in antioxidants, which are believed to help prevent cancer. Those nutrients were found to be much higher in most of the organic produce.

The pesticide question

So, while scientists duke it out, what’s a parent to do? Dr. Cristen Harris, associate professor in the Department of Nutrition and Exercise Science at Bastyr University, says the evidence that organic produce generally has higher nutritional content still outweighs the evidence to the contrary. And, she says, even though there is no definitive conclusion on the nutrition question, organics — and studies about organics — are now so widespread that clearer answers will eventually emerge.

In the meantime, parents who buy organics have other reasons to shell out the extra cash. Parker buys organics because of her concern over pesticides. According to Benbrook and Harris, there is no dispute that pesticide residue is far more prevalent and concentrated in conventional produce — and that certain pesticides can have a negative impact on children in such areas as brain development.

While buying organic won’t completely eliminate exposure, it will likely reduce it. A 2002 Consumer’s Union study conducted on more than 94,000 samples found that organically grown produce contains pesticide residue only one-third as often as produce that is conventionally grown. And it’s not just produce that is affected; Benbrooks says fruit juice can be a source of pesticide exposure, because of its high concentration of fruit.

Other concerns

Parker’s other reason for buying organics Organic carrot— that it is good for the earth — reflects a common belief that all organics are raised using sustainable, environmentally sound farming practices. But is this true? Because of the premium prices organics command, mega-farms have been moving into the market, often with less-than-organic practices. For example, both Horizon Organics and Aurora Organic Dairy (the main supplier of organic milk for store brands such as Safeway and Costco) have been accused by some of running huge “factory farms,” at which conditions are not consistent with organic practices. Indeed, Aurora was found to be in “willful violation” of organic rules by the USDA in 2007. Both Aurora and Horizon maintain that they are in compliance today, and there are no reports of confirmed violations from the USDA. But parents may want to do a little homework before they buy, to ensure that their organic purchases reflect their social concerns, if any.

Kathryn Russell Selk lives, works, writes and will be buying more organics from small, local producers for her 14-month-old and 6-and-a-half-year-old in Seattle.

The Dirty Dozen

Choose organic whenever possible when purchasing:

  1. Peaches
  2. Apples
  3. Bell peppers
  4. Celery
  5. Nectarines
  6. Strawberries
  7. Cherries
  8. Kale
  9. Lettuce
  10. Grapes (imported)
  11. Carrots
  12. Pears

The Clean 15- lowest in pesticides:

  1. Onion
  2. Avocado
  3. Sweet Corn
  4. Pineapple
  5. Mango
  6. Asparagus
  7. Sweet Peas
  8. Kiwi
  9. Cabbage
  10. Eggplant
  11. Papaya
  12. Watermelon
  13. Broccoli
  14. Tomato
  15. Sweet Potato

 Source: The Environmental Working Group

The Organic Center has a free, downloadable and printable “Pocket Guide” with its recommendations on which produce it rates as posing the greatest pesticide risk per serving. It also contains tips about seasonal variations, etc. 

The Environmental Working Group's “dirty dozen” downloadable “Pocket Guide” has a list of the twelve fruits and vegetables it says are the “worst” and fifteen it says are the “best,” with the recommendation to buy organic when buying the “worst” and a brief explanation of methodology.

For more information regarding the nutritional superiority of plant-based organic foods, check out Benbrook's full study.

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