Organic Foods: Are They Worth It? (Part 2)

Last week I laid out the basics of organic foods — what they are and how they’re defined. I’m curious — how many of you bought or ate organic produce this past weekend?


Decisions, Decisions
Organic foods have become more mainstream over the past few years. According to a market research firm, the Hartman Group, about 70% of Americans purchase organic foods on occasion, and about 25% buy them every week. Why? It’s pretty obvious: We want to eat healthy food and we want to protect the environment. Many people want to support local farmers who practice organic farming, too. Here are some factors to consider when deciding to “go organic” or not.

Open up your wallets, folks. If money were no object, it’s likely that more than 25% of us would be buying organic foods on a regular basis. But most of us need to or choose to spend our dollars wisely. The reality is that organic foods don’t come cheap. And when you have a family to feed and a limited food budget, it can be challenging to justify the cost of organic foods. Organic foods can cost 50% more than regular foods, sometimes even more.

Save the environment. Organic farming reduces pollution in the air, water, and soil. It also improves the quality, or fertility, of the soil, and reduces soil erosion. Birds and animals (and also humans) benefit, too, due to the lack of pesticides. Organic farming also uses about 50% less energy than conventional farming.

Out with antibiotics. Antibiotics come in handy to treat strep throat, but who wants to get a mouthful in their steak? Organically raised animals don’t get antibiotics in their feed, nor are they given growth hormones. They also aren’t fed animal by-products, which reduces the risk of the dreaded Mad Cow disease. However, animals raised organically may be given vaccines against disease.

Fresh is best. Many people find that organically grown foods are fresher and taste better. That’s because they aren’t treated with preservatives to make them last longer. But that also means that they don’t last as long as conventionally produced foods, so you may need to make several trips to the grocery store during the week.

Be healthier (maybe). There’s been much debate as to whether organic produce is more nutritious than conventional produce. Some studies have shown that organic produce contains higher amounts of vitamins, minerals, and antioxidants, as a result of not being treated with pesticides. But other studies have shown no difference in nutrition between the two kinds of produce. Probably the biggest (and maybe most important) reason to choose organic for health reasons is to avoid chowing down on pesticides, which are particularly harmful to children and pregnant women.

What to Do?
Only you can make the decision as to whether to go organic or not. If you’re concerned that your budget simply won’t allow for it, here are some considerations that may help:

Learn about the “Dirty Dozen” and the “Clean 15.” The Environmental Working Group (EWG) is a nonprofit agency that works to promote health policy changes. They’ve published lists of (conventional) produce that are highest and lowest in pesticides. These lists can help you decide what’s worth to buy organic. For example, avocado, sweet peas, and onions are very low in pesticides, so it’s probably not worth it to spend money on organic versions of these foods. Where you might decide to splurge is on strawberries, peaches, and lettuce, for example. See the entire list here.

Buy locally. Take advantage of stores in your town that sell locally grown organic foods. Visit your town or city’s farmer’s markets, too. Locally grown organic foods may be cheaper because there are essentially no transportation costs.

Buy in season. With summer nearly upon us, many more fruits and vegetables are available to us. Seasonal food tends to come cheaper than, say, buying blueberries in January.

Join a Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) farm. With a CSA, a farmer sells shares of his farm, which typically consists of receiving a box of vegetables or other foods, usually every week. It’s kind of like buying a subscription. For more information on CSA’s, check out this Web site.

Don’t worry too much. If you simply can’t afford organic foods, keep in mind that you’ll still reap plenty of nutritional benefits from conventionally grown foods. “Regular” fruits and vegetables contain fiber, vitamins, minerals, and antioxidants that are essential for good health.

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  • Scott Hedrick

    I shake my head in sorrow that a site that is supposed to promote health and science would also promote the *myth* that some foods are not organic. *All* foods, without exception, are organic. Genetically modified foods are organic. Ask any chemist. People act as if “organic”, “natural” and “raw” have magic properties. Asbestos is natural. Most pesticides are organic. For that matter, all the oil spilled in the Gulf of Mexico was raw, natural AND organic. Hanging a label on something doesn’t change what it is, or mean that things that don’t have the label are bad. That’s not to say that there aren’t ways of growing food that could make them healthier, but let’s not get fixated on buzzwords. We still need to read the ingredients.

  • acampbell

    Thanks, Scott. You’re correct in that all foods are “organic.” However, the reality is that the USDA has developed a formal definition of the term “organic” as it applies to foods, based on how they are produced (without pesticides, radiation, antibiotics, etc.). Many people simply prefer to know that their food is grown and/or raised in a way that doesn’t involve potentially harmful chemicals or processes. I don’t think I implied that “conventionally” grown foods are bad, either. In fact, many “organic” foods, such as snack foods, for example, can still be high in saturated fat and sodium, so from some standpoints, they can be nutritionally inferior to “regular” food. As you said, one should always read the ingredient list and Nutrition Facts label, whenever they’re available.

  • jim snell

    Yes, vegetables are good for one.

    Yet when it comes to type 2 diabetes, the still most important factor is to control the energy load – ie carbs control and suficient hearty exercise.

    Focusing on the vegetable/nutrient side while extremely important does not stop the problem if one ignores the carb control/energery consumption.

  • Scott Alexander

    Most of the organic foods are healthy. Just make sure to clean them thoroughly before ingesting them. There are also organic substances that are not safe. Better do some research first before taking or using organic products that are not that familiar with.

  • K Gilmour

    Thanks for mentioning the two crucial lists! So important!!
    I pay attention to the Dirty Dozen and Clean Fifteen lists. They help me to know which produce I can safely consume without being overly concerned whether it’s organically grown.
    Tip: have a smart phone? Put the lists on your home screen – so convenient on shopping day!
    Also I juice whole watermelon into one of my power juice recipes, so watermelon gets scrubbed thoroughly in a bath and is very well rinsed before juicing since I juice the rind and all. As well, other melons where skin is not consumed get a soap and water scrub with a brush and extensive rinsing to remove e-coli or other organisms that can transfer from incising the skin, onto the fruit surface.
    If I need potatoes on occasion and can’t find organic, I will choose the tiny new potatoes, figuring that they haven’t been exposed to as many foreign substances as a more mature potato might have been. If I can’t find tiny potatoes, I just do without and change my menu.
    Articles such as this, get people thinking — that’s always a good thing. With all the manipulation our food goes through before it reaches the consumer, the challenge to eat clean food that has ‘t been tampered with in one way or another becomes more of a challenge by the day. But take the challenge, we must; for our children and elderly as well as ourselves. Organic is always worth it.