Why and when Choose Organic? 2021 UPDATE
For all of my patients who wonder why I ask them to choose organic foods as much as possible (and for all of my friends and family who wonder why I spend $ on organics), this post is the answer. Be sure to click on the links to read the full studies. Updated research from 2020/2021 is highlighted in green. Scroll down to view EWG's 2021 Shopper's Guide to Pesticides in Produce.
What does "organic" even mean?
This 2020 review provides clarity on what constitutes organic, and what impacts the process has on our environment and food security.
Not only are they less toxic, but studies consistently show that organically grown foods are higher in health promoting nutrients including Essential Fatty Acids than conventional.
In a 2014 study, authors analyzed 343 research papers in the largest research effort of its kind and found meaningful differences in composition between organic and non-organic crops. Pesticide residues were 4 times higher in conventional crops, which also contained significantly higher concentrations of the toxic metal cadmium. Substantially higher – up to 60% – levels of a range of antioxidants, minerals and vitamin compounds were found in organics.
Organic tomatoes contain higher levels of allergy-squelching quercetin, organic oranges have higher vitamin C levels, and organic red wine contain higher levels of resveratrol, polyphenols and other antioxidants. Organic tomato ketchup can contain as much as 3 times the cancer-fighting lycopene as non-organic ketchup. In a 2020 comparative study, organic eggs were shown to have significantly higher nutritional quality than conventional.
These findings are important because declining nutrient content in food crops are well documented, as are nutrient deficiencies in people.
To help consumers decide which foods to definitely buy organic, the Environmental Working Group releases a report each year that reveals food levels of pesticide residues; the Shoppers Guide to Pesticides in Produce.
The Dirty Dozen lists the highest amounts found, while the Clean 15 lists the produce with the least pesticides. This is their list for 2021:
The Dirty Dozen
Kale, Collards, Mustard Greens
Bell & Hot Peppers
The Clean 15
Sweet Peas (Frozen)
So organic foods are more nutritious and less toxic. But how does eating organics actually affect our bodies?
A fascinating study by the University of Washington analyzed pesticide breakdown products in preschool children and found that kids eating organic fruits and veggies had average concentrations 9 times lower than children eating conventional produce. The researchers concluded that organic produce can reduce children’s pesticide exposure levels from above to below the EPA’s current guidelines.
An earlier study cited by the authors looked at pesticide metabolites in the urine of 96 urban and suburban children and found pesticides in the urine of all children but one. The parents of the child with no pesticide metabolites reported buying exclusively organic produce.
The same researchers later showed that switching children to a largely organic diet could quickly and dramatically reduce the amounts of pesticide residues in their bodies.
Research published in 2020 showed that Glyphosate Levels in Children and Adults Drop Dramatically After One Week of Eating Organic.
This is particularly important in light of studies showing that chronic low-level exposure to pesticides may affect neurologic functioning, neurodevelopment, and growth in children.
In terms of health benefits for adults, this 2020 study concluded that men who eat organics are less likely to experience erectile dysfunction. A just published 2021 study demonstrated a decreased risk of breast cancer with decreased dietary exposure to pesticides from eating organic foods. An earlier report from the same prospective study on the incidence of breast, prostate, skin, and colorectal cancers, non-Hodgkin lymphomas, and 15 other lymphomas concluded that a higher frequency of organic food consumption was associated with a reduced risk of cancer.
Okay, so I’ve addressed why we should choose organic. And when we should choose organic – the Dirty Dozen. But sometimes we don’t have access to an organic variety, and sometimes the price difference between organic and conventional seems large. The good news is that there are ways we can reduce the amount of chemicals on nonorganic produce.
Measurements of several pesticide residues before and after treatment have been investigated. Peeling fruits and veggies removed almost all pesticide residues. Washing produce can also reduce the levels of certain chemicals. Different acid solutions were tested against neutral and alkaline solutions and tap water. Acidic solutions worked best for pesticide residues (87.9-100% removal of each chemical).