How Healthy is Organic Food?

I get a lot of questions about whether or not organic foods are “healthier” than their non-organic counterparts.  My philosophy is that organic food can often be cost-prohibitive, and it’s a matter of personal choice as to whether or not you want to buy organic items.  A recent study from the Annals of Internal Medicine shines new light on the differences between organic and non-organic food – in reality, the two are a lot similar than we previously thought.  The study found that overall, organic foods do not contain more vitamins, minerals, or other nutrients than conventional foods.  Some organic foods were shown to contain higher levels of phosphorus (which can be detrimental to bone health in large quantities), although this difference was not clinically significant.  So, what does this mean?  In terms of health benefits, eating a food labelled as “organic” is not going to produce any more benefits than a non-organic variety of that same food. Organic spinach is not going to contain more iron than conventional spinach, so if you choose to buy organic, it should be for reasons other than nutrient content.

The study did find that organic foods had lower overall levels of pesticides and antibiotic-resistant bacteria than conventional varieties, although it is uncommon for either type of food to contain levels of pesticides above the allowable limits.  If pesticides are a concern for you, the Environmental Working Group issues a great guide each year on which fruits and vegetables contain the highest (and lowest) levels of pesticides.  The “Dirty Dozen” fruits and veggies contain high levels of pesticides, and, if you want to start buying certain types of produce organic, these are good options to start with.  They include:

  1. apples
  2. celery
  3. sweet bell peppers
  4. peaches
  5. strawberries
  6. imported nectarines
  7. grapes
  8. spinach
  9. lettuce
  10. cucumbers
  11. domestic blueberries
  12. potatoes

Other fruits and veggies generally contain low levels of pesticides, and it should be safe to buy conventional varieties of these “Clean Fifteen”:

  1. onions
  2. sweet corn
  3. pineapples
  4. avocado
  5. cabbage
  6. sweet peas
  7. asparagus
  8. mangoes
  9. eggplant
  10. kiwi
  11. domestic cantaloupe
  12. sweet potatoes
  13. grapefruit
  14. watermelon
  15. mushrooms

In general, organic produce is cheaper when it’s in season, and sale prices can often be the same, or less than, the price of conventional produce.  If you are unsure of whether or not you want to buy organic produce, start by looking for sales on in-season organic foods, and try to buy organic varieties of the Dirty Dozen whenever possible.

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