Is Buying Organic Worth It?

To buy organic or not to buy organic? That is the question.

organic-produce

Deborah Gerszberg, RD, CNSC, CDN Clinical Nutritionist, The Pancreas Center

As the organic food sections in grocery stores continue to expand, you may find yourself wondering if you should be buying organic foods instead of conventional foods. The first thing is to understand the differences between organic and conventional foods.

What does organic mean? Organic foods and products must be produced using approved methods, which promote recycling of resources, are not harmful to the environment, and preserve biodiversity. Organic foods are grown and processed without synthetic fertilizer, synthetic pesticides, prophylactic antibiotics, or hormones. The United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) sets standards for these approved methods and oversees the certification of all organic products. If a product contains 95% or more organic materials, it is permitted to use the USDA Organic seal.

Here are three other USDA-regulated labels for animal-derived foods (these are not necessarily organic):

  • Free-range: animals provided shelter in an area with unlimited access to food and water as well as continuous access to outdoors, though this area may be fenced and/or covered with netting material.
  • Natural: minimally processed and contain no artificial ingredients (label regulated only when food product has processed meat, poultry, and/or egg).
  • Grass-fed: a majority of nutrients in the animals’ diet comes from grass. This does not limit the use of antibiotics, hormones, or pesticides.

Is conventional food safe?   The answer requires a look at multiple factors.

There are two main safety issues regarding food: chemical contamination and bacterial contamination.  In animal studies, many of the chemicals used in conventional food have been shown to cause endocrine and reproductive problems, birth defects, behavior changes, asthma, and cancer. To protect the public from exposure to high levels of pesticides and other agricultural chemicals used in conventional food, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA)  limits the amount of residue allowed in conventional foods. However, health advocates argue that the permissible levels in the U.S. are too high for human health. A meta-analysis by Smith-Spangler et al, published in the Annals of Internal Medicine in September 2012, found that pesticide residue exceeded the allowable limits in only three out of 200 studies. Exposure to pesticide residue was more than five times higher in conventional food than in organic food (38% versus 7%). The long-term health risks of pesticides remain unclear and controversial.

There is widespread use of low-dose antibiotics on conventional animal farms, but not necessarily to prevent infections. In the 1950s, antibiotics were found to help animals grow faster without increasing their feed. In fact, animals account for 75% of the antibiotics used in the United States. This has contributed to the growth of antibiotic resistance and, subsequently, an increase in antibiotic-resistant food-borne illnesses, which make treatment much more challenging.  According to Smith-Spangler’s meta-analysis, conventional chicken and pork were nearly three times more likely than organic chicken and pork to have contamination from bacteria that are resistant to at least three or more antibiotics (49% risk in conventional versus 16% risk in organic).

To lower your risk for food-borne illness from meats, buy organic or antibiotic-free and minimize your intake of ground and processed meats, which contain parts from many animals, increasing the likelihood of pathogen exposure. In addition, check your meats with a food thermometer to make sure they are thoroughly cooked (see these food guidelines for minimum cooking temperatures). Do not leave leftovers out long after cooking; food that has been out for four hours or more should be discarded).

Does an organic diet reduce the risk of cancer?  The Smith-Spangler review tracked health outcomes such as allergies, campylobacter infection, and pesticide levels in urine and breast milk. It did not evaluate the long-term link to cancer, as, unfortunately, no long-term studies have been done in humans to assess the effect of an organic diet on cancer rates.

Are organic foods more nutritious? Smith-Spangler’s study determined that overall, organic foods are not more nutritious than conventional foods, but there were significant limitations to this review, and more research needs to be done in this area. Many variables affect the nutrient content of food, making it difficult to evaluate in a large review study. These include type of soil, location/environment, season, and when the produce was picked.

If something is labeled organic, is it always a healthy choice? Not necessarily. While organic foods are usually less processed, have fewer additives, and are chemical free, there is no shortage of organic junk food. Consuming large amounts of sugary, processed, high-fat foods is unhealthy, whether it is organic or conventional, especially if you are overweight or obese.

What’s a shopper on a budget to do? If you want to buy organic foods but cash is tight, prioritize your organic purchases. Choose organic for the foods containing the highest amount of chemical residue, and choose conventional foods for foods with the least residue (many of these have thick skins). Check out the Environmental Working Group’s list of the dirty dozen and the clean fifteen. If you cannot afford to purchase any organic foods, you should not avoid fruits and vegetables altogether. Experts agree that the health benefits from eating fruits and vegetables far outweigh the risks of eating foods with safe levels of pesticide residue.  Personally, I try to eat only organic animal products and to avoid the dirty dozen conventional foods as much as possible. That said, when I am in someone else’s home or at a restaurant, I do not worry about whether or not it is organic.

Here are 6 tips on buying organic foods on a budget: 1.) Compare prices—some organic foods are no more expensive (or only a little more so) than the conventional food.

2.) Buy organic foods when in season—this is usually less expensive, the food is tastier, and nutrients are at their peak!

3.) Buy conventional produce with skin that is going to be discarded, such as citrus fruits, avocado, papaya, onion, pineapple, cantaloupe, winter squashes, banana, kiwi, melon, and mango.

4.) It is most important for young children, pregnant women, and those with weakened immune systems to eat organic food, so try to make sure those family members don’t eat excessive amounts of conventional foods from the dirty dozen.

5.) When buying animal products (especially those that are not fat free), buy organic as often as possible. Some companies aren’t certified organic, but still pledge not to use hormones or unnecessary antibiotics. This would be a good second choice. It is better to eat organic meat less often, making as an alternative lentil-and-bean dishes, which are both inexpensive and healthy. Red and processed meats, organic or not, are known to increase certain cancers

6.) Purchase a crop share or CSA (Community Supported Agriculture) to get local, in-season produce. Many are organic style, though some of the small farms cannot afford the USDA certification. Visit Local Harvest (http://www.localharvest.org/) to find a crop share near you. I purchased a crop share for the first time this year and am splitting it with a neighbor; it costs less than $30 per week—much less than I spend on produce in the grocery store and much healthier!

This article originally appeared on the Columbia University Department of Surgery website.

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Organic food, United States Department of Agriculture