In an ideal world everything we eat would be organic. But, in the real world, is organic food worth it? Does the extra expense come with an added benefit, or are you just throwing your money away?
What is organic food?
Organic produce is grown without the use of toxic or persistent pesticides, antibiotics, synthetic fertilizers, or irradiation. They are never GMO (genetically modified). They’re a smart choice because they’re typically more nutritious, help you avoid the toxic chemicals used in conventional farming, and are better for the environment.
Are there Pesticides on Organic Food?
It’s a myth that organic foods have no pesticides or chemicals on them. Organic farmers are still allowed to use certain pesticides and chemicals on their produce, albeit they are limited to the ones approved by the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA). While there are many natural options organic farmers can use, there are over 20 synthetic chemicals approved for use on organics.
Additionally, if an organic farm is located next to a conventional farm, the organic crops can be contaminated by conventional pesticides when the wind blows them over. This is called “drift”. The amount found on organic produce will be much less than that found on conventional which is sprayed directly.
You may be thinking, so whats the point? Is organic food worth it? And the answer is still yes. While there may be some traces of chemicals on organic food, it’s a much lower concentration than those found on conventional products.
The frequency of occurrence of pesticides was found to be 4 times higher on conventional crops vs organic in a meta-analysis of over 300 studies published in the British Journal of Nutrition in 2014
The frequency of occurrence of pesticides was found to be 4 times higher on conventional crops vs organic crops.
Plus, in the absence of drift, those chemicals are generally believed to be safer than those that are banned from use on organics.
It’s a good idea to buy from small local organic farms because they’re typically more cautious with their spraying compared to large corporate organic farms found in grocery stores nationwide. (Plus, you can ask them what they use and how often they spray at a local farmers market.)
Can Organic Farmers Use Antibiotics?
You may have been startled to read that conventional oranges are being doused in antibiotics after a recent Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) ruling. This is despite the EPA’s own risk assessment that found a high probability it could lead to antibiotic resistant bacteria and a medium risk it could negatively impact human health. Consumer advocates and health experts are outraged.
The truth is, antibiotics have been allowed on produce for decades, and even organic fruit trees, up until 2014.
Antibiotics are no longer allowed to be used on organic farms, though. This is one more reason to choose organic.
Is Organic Food More Nutritious?
There have been some fake news headlines suggesting that organic food isn’t more nutritious than conventional. These headlines are based on faulty or skewed data, miscalculations, or downright lies.
A meta analysis is a study of studies. Researchers pool the results of hundreds of studies to look for patterns. These are generally quite trustworthy, because you’re not relying on the experiment of just one group of researchers, but rather, you’re combining the results from hundreds of different research studies.
A large meta-analysis which included 343 peer-reviewed studies and was published in the British Journal of Nutrition in 2014, found that organic crops — ranging from apples and blueberries to carrots and broccoli — have substantially higher concentrations of a various different antioxidants and other beneficial compounds.
For example, organic crops were found to have 51% more anthocyanins, and 50% more flavanols. Anthocyanins are powerful antioxidants associated with slower cognitive decline and currently being studied for their potential anti-cancer benefits. Flavanols are good for the heart and support blood vessels and healthy circulation.
Is Organic Food Healthier? Can Organic Food Help Prevent Cancer?
Besides for the research suggesting organic foods are more nutritious, we also have data that organic food consumption can contribute to the reduced risk of cancer.
A 2018 study published in JAMA found the most frequent consumers of organic food had 25% fewer cases of cancer vs. those who never ate it.
A recent study published in JAMA Internal Medicine in 2018 found eating organically can reduce the incidence of cancer. Researchers followed nearly 70,000 adults, most of them women, for five years and found that the most frequent consumers of organic food had 25 percent fewer cancers over all compared to those who never ate organic. In particular, there was a significant reduction in the incidence of lymphomas and postmenopausal breast cancers.
Importantly, this study was funded by a non-partisan sponsor: the French government. It’s important when assessing the validity of a study to always look at the authors and funding…which is not supposed to, but unfortunately sometimes does, sway the results.
Is Organic Food Worth It?
Research shows organic food is:
- more nutritious than conventional, in some cases it contains as much as 50% more of certain key antioxidants
- has significantly less pesticide residue – 4 times less
- not allowed to be sprayed with antibiotics, which is associated with the growing threat of antibiotic resistant bacteria
- better for our health, and regular consumption of organic foods could contribute to the reduced risk of certain cancers
Is Organic Food More Expensive?
While at first glance organic food may be a few pennies, dimes, or dollars more at the grocery store, it may end up saving you hundreds or thousands of dollars down the line in doctors and pharmacy bills.
Think of eating organically as an investment in your health.
That said, an organic grocery bill doesn’t have to be expensive if you shop smart. As a single person, who cooks the vast majority of my meals at home, my weekly food bill is about $100-$115. That breaks down to about $5 per meal…significantly less than if I was eating out.
I share all my tips for selecting the healthiest foods and saving money on the healthiest groceries in my book The Real Food Grocery Guide. If you’ve already purchased it, don’t miss your free gifts with purchase.
How to Shop for Organic Food on a Budget
There are many ways to save on organic food:
- buy frozen organic produce, which is usually 20-30% cheaper than fresh, making it about the same price (or less!) than conventional. Frozen is typically just as nutritious (if not more so) than fresh.
- join a CSA (community-supported agriculture) which allows you to purchase direct from a local farm, cutting out the costs of the grocery middleman.
- buy whats in season and local, as these foods will naturally be less expensive than out of season and exotic produce.
Check out this post for more tips: How to Shop Healthy on a Budget
Do you purchase organic foods?