Is it worth the extra cost to buy organic?
By Nancy Burke, R.D., Joan Daniels, R.D., and Danielle Karsies, R.D., M.S.
University of Michigan Comprehensive Cancer Center Dietitians
A cancer diagnosis often makes people re-evaluate their eating habits, inspiring many to incorporate more organically grown foods in their diets. Some people buy organic because of concerns about the environment, pesticides or animal welfare. Others perceive organic foods to be more nutritious. But considering the higher cost, is there any evidence that organically grown food offers more health benefits than conventionally grown food?
The U.S. Department of Agriculture defines organic foods as those produced without the use of artificial fertilizers and pesticides. They also must be minimally processed without artificial ingredients, preservatives or irradiation. In organic animal products -- including meats, eggs and dairy products -- livestock are not given routine antibiotics or hormones.
But are organic or natural foods better for you? The evidence remains controversial. Some studies suggest that organically grown fruits and vegetables may contain slightly higher levels of vitamin C, trace minerals, antioxidants and polyphenols than their conventionally grown counterparts. Other studies find no nutritional difference between organic and non-organic foods.
Many consumers choose organic produce because it's thought to be safer to eat. But it's not clear that this is true. Although organic farms may not use pesticides, their foods could contain trace amounts of pesticide residues if they are exposed to contaminated water, soil or chemicals carried by the wind. Furthermore, according to the American Institute for Cancer Research, no convincing scientific evidence exists to show that pesticide residues or additives increase cancer risk when used in accordance with federal regulations. The AICR also notes, however, that while produce grown in the United States is among the safest in the world, food grown in other countries may not follow the same strict standards for pesticide use.
We typically advise patients who are worried about pesticide residues to buy organic as long as the higher cost doesn't cause them to buy fewer fruits and vegetables. The goal is to eat at least five servings of a wide variety of fruits and vegetables daily -- regardless of whether they are organically or conventionally grown. The advantages of eating a diet packed with colorful fruits and vegetables strongly outweigh any potential risk from pesticides.
Tips for keeping the cost of organic food within your budget:
1. Buy fruits and vegetables in season.
2. Shop at farmers markets instead of grocery stores.
3. Shop around for the best prices.
4. Join a food co-op or buy a share in a farm that offers community sponsored agriculture.
THE DIRTY DOZEN
If you'd like to incorporate more organic food into your diet, spend your money where it counts. The following fruits and vegetables typically contain the highest pesticide levels when grown conventionally, according to the Environmental Working Group, which makes them a good place to start if you want to go organic. Wash all produce well before eating it, whether it's organic or not.
- Bell peppers
- Grapes (imported)
THE CLEAN 15
The following are fruits and vegetables that have been found to have the lowest levels of pesticides when grown conventionally. If you're budget-conscious, it may be less important to buy these organic.
- Peas (sweet)
- Corn (sweet)
- sweet potatoes
ORGANIC VS. NATURAL
Foods labeled "natural" aren't necessarily organically grown. According to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, foods labeled "natural" do not contain synthetic or artificial ingredients. They are minimally processed, but animals may be given antibiotics or growth enhancer